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Battling Napoleon Bonaparte with Dragons

– Posted in: Fantasy Book Reviews

A Fun Alernate History

After I read Naomi Novik’s book Uprooted, I bought His Majesty’s Dragon: A Novel of Temeraire to see what this series was like. I admit I was enchanted with Temeraire, Captain Laurence, and the lovely twist on history Novik gives us.

I suspect this historical tidbit might have sparked Novik’s imagination and the series:

Between 1803-05, Napoleon planned an invasion of Britain. He financed his venture by selling France’s holdings in the New World to the United States (our Louisiana Purchase). At one point, he planned on using a fleet of air balloons to carry troops into England. The plan never came to fruition, but British cartoonists envisioned what such an invasion might look like.

English Channel engraving shows how Napoleon would reach England. width=

English Channel public domain engraving shows how Napoleon would reach England.

Her version of an air force of flying dragons reminded me of this small moment in history.

Brief Summary of His Majesty’s Dragon

This summary is from Amazon:

“Aerial combat brings a thrilling new dimension to the Napoleonic Wars as valiant warriors rise to Britain’s defense by taking to the skies . . . not aboard aircraft but atop the mighty backs of fighting dragons.

“When HMS Reliant captures a French frigate and seizes its precious cargo, an unhatched dragon egg, fate sweeps Capt. Will Laurence from his seafaring life into an uncertain future–and an unexpected kinship with a most extraordinary creature. Thrust into the rarified world of the Aerial Corps as master of the dragon Temeraire, he will face a crash course in the daring tactics of airborne battle. For as France’s own dragon-borne forces rally to breach British soil in Bonaparte’s boldest gambit, Laurence and Temeraire must soar into their own baptism of fire.”

What I Liked

I love dragons, so I immediately fell in love with Temeraire, an intelligent dragon who speaks to humans.

Temeraire's headforms by Shiiira

Temeraire’s headforms by Shiiira

1) The dragons. They have personalities and intelligence, so they take on human personalities and are more than weapons; however, to a careful reader, they are in a subservient position in the air corps, which for me created a subtle, deep tension.

2) The relationship between Captain Laurence and Temeraire. In many ways, this is a quiet book about a man’s journey into a new relationship, career, and lifestyle.

3) Captain Laurence’s Victorian manners and sensibilities. This probably seems a little odd, but I thought Novik did an excellent job of capturing the sensibilities of the Victorians.

Laurence is an uptight, upper-class Brit, who adheres to his class’ sense of morality, and in many ways is an admirable man, who reflects his era. Once he joins the air corps, he finds himself among people who are far more casual, and his new surroundings and comrades challenge his sensibilities.
I like his personal growth and change. I enjoyed his transformation. Some have described the characters as flat. I didn’t find that to be true. Laurence is a product of his time, and his personality reflects his cultural upbringing.

What I Wasn’t Crazy About

First, let’s talk about the Bechdel Test for female characters (this was created specifically for movies, but works for books as well): It’s a well-known test for gender bias and to pass a film has to meet three criteria. This is a bare minimum test; most movies don’t pass.

1) There must be at least two female characters with names.
2) They must talk to each other
3) About something besides men.
My additions:
4) Female characters must have distinct, complex personalities.
5) They must be important to the story.

This book mostly fails this test and my additional standards. There were female characters but they were more props than fully developed characters. With the exception of a few sentences, they don’t talk to each other. The space given to them is minimal.

I’ve come to expect male writer to have problems creating strong female characters, but I expected more from a female author. This aspect, of an other wise lovely book, was very disappointing.

Last thoughts

If you love dragons, His Majesty’s Dragon is a winner. The alternate history is an added benefit.

I would caution readers who are looking for high adventure and continuous war with flying dragons; this isn’t that kind of book. The book opens with a fight scene, and it would be easy to expect the rest of the book to follow the same direction. There are only about three battle scenes. Temeraire and Laurence both need training, and much of the book is about that training and Temeraire growing into an adult dragon.

The Art

The image of Temeraire is by Leatificat

The head forms of Temeraire are by Penjjadas

The Usual Reminders

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