SynopsisCaptain Will Laurence has been at sea since he was just twelve years old. Rising on merit to captain his own vessel, Laurence has earned himself a beautiful fiancee, society's esteem and a golden future. But the war is not going well. It seems Britain can only wait as Napoleon plans to overrun her shores. After a skirmish with a French ship, Laurence finds himself in charge of a rare cargo: a dragon egg bound for the Emperor himself. Dragons are much prized: properly trained, they can mount a fearsome attack from the skies. But when the newly-hatched dragon ignores the young midshipman Laurence chose as its keeper and decides to imprint itself on the horrified captain instead, Laurence's world falls apart. Gone is his golden future: gone his social standing, and soon his beautiful fiancee, as he is consigned to be the constant companion and trainer of the fighting dragon Temeraire!
What Did We Think?
Initial reactions to this book were very good, but that could simply be because those who loved it were more vocal than those who didn't. After a few moments of gushing about how refreshingly positive, enjoyable and easily readable the book was, the critique began in earnest.
It seemed that the easy readability of the novel was actually part of a point against it. The problems and solutions presented in the novel were glossed in such a way that it read as emotionally stunted. Not to say that we didn't care about any of the characters, the bond between Laurence and Temeraire seems a brilliant piece of characterization, but rather that it didn't seem real enough (a phrase I hesitate to use regarding a novel in which dragons fight in the Napoleonic Wars). To put it another way, the novel read in such a way to place in a spectrum closer to teen fiction than to the gloves-off grittiness of, say, Morgan's The Steel Remains (see our discussion here), on the opposite end of the scale.
However, the lack of grit is not necessarily a negative factor for all readers. Despite being at one point compared to "My Little Pony" on a larger scale, the rose-tinted view of the world presented in Temeraire was a refreshing change of pace from the dark, foreboding, negativity of a lot of modern fiction (see Cormac McCarthy's The Road). Novik's novel has a sense of humour,
Another reason the novel was found to be refreshingly different was the charm offered by the "stately language" of the Napoleonic setting. The most obvious comparison on this point is the stunningly wonderful Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke which also blends the Fantastical and Napoleonic history (in a darker, more adult - and possibly more fantastical - manner than Temeraire). The alternate-history nature of fiction means it is less reliant on the Tolkien-esque tropes which riddle the majority of other Fantasy fictions.
The nature of the relationship between a dragon and their rider was a topic discussed at length, natural comparisons were drawn with Anne McCaffrey's extensive Pern series (an essay by McCaffrey on the influence of sexuality and gender on dragon bonding can be found here). McCaffrey's dragons have an explicit psychic connection with their riders to the point that if the rider dies the dragon, in a moment of trauma, "jumps" into the void never to be seen again. Novik's rider-dragon relationship is however, much more based on an intense sense of empathy rather than any explicit psychic bond. Laurence repeatedly refers to Temeraire as a friend, an equal, and this raises interesting questions regarding whether he would have been as willing to retain his dragon had it been of a dimmer-witted breed rather than the intelligent Chinese variety which Temeraire is an example of (no spoiler here!). The relationship is seemingly symbiotic, a supporting role, but unlike McCaffrey, completely platonic.
Picking at the text causes a few threads to loosen which may or may not be addressed in later instalments in the series, not least amongst those is the question of why such intelligent creatures allow themselves to be bred, their children to be sent to war for human gains and why they accept the status of essentially being big pets. The placidity of the dragons was found by some to be annoying, an artificial smoothing of situations to allow the plot to flow unhindered by complex inter-personal relations and issues.
Overall the novel seemed to be enjoyed, though for some enjoyment was as far as it got with some readers finding it hard to enthuse too heavily about a novel they saw as being predominantly teen in focus.
The votes were as follows: 5, 6, 6, 7, 7, 8, 9, 9, 10