Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Napoleon, Blown Apart

I'm not taking on many unfinished fantasy series at the moment. My memory isn't what it used to be, and not up to the task of keeping straight all the particulars of the stories George R.R. Martin, Patrick Rothfuss, and Scott Lynch have in motion. The more "next book"s I'm waiting on, the less likely I'm going to remember where I am in any one given series.

So you can probably understand why I responded with reluctance to my friend's recommendation: the first volume of the Temeraire series, by Naomi Novik. But there were points in its favor (besides the obvious, that a friend had recommended it). The series is projected to be nine books long, and eight of them are already published. That meant I'd be unlikely to catch up with the author before her saga was done.

Then there was the intriguing premise of the story itself. Part "alternate history," part fantasy, the Temeraire series is set in the early 1800s and chronicles the Napoleonic Wars from the point of view of a British captain. A captain of the air force. An air force that consists of dragons, in a world where dozens of breeds have been domesticated by many different countries. I have to admit, just the idea was enough to make me shrug any bit of "dragon fatigue" pop culture might have given me.

The first book, His Majesty's Dragon (published as Temeraire in the UK), sets the stage of this intriguing world. A naval captain, William Laurence, captures a French transport with a dragon egg among the cargo. When the dragon hatches and "bonds" to him, he must abandon the world he has known to join the royal air force. The book doesn't cover much beyond Laurence and the dragon's pairing and training, yet it doesn't really seem slow paced. It doesn't feel like Novik is parceling out details to make them last for nine books; instead, it's a rather effective tease for what might come. A solid "pilot episode" of a television series, if you will.

It also helps that the book manages to sidestep some obvious cliches and thwart a few others. This could have been a familiar "boy and his dragon" tale (well -- man, in this case), but the dragon Temeraire departs nicely from the expected. He is a deeply intelligent and articulate (yes, he talks) creature, with a personality that cleverly blends childlike innocence with philosophical introspection. This could have been a familiar "reluctant hero" story, but Laurence is determined to excel in his new role and not dwell on his lost naval career. He's already a man with a deep sense of duty, and that means any thoughts of giving up or taking an easy way out never enter his head.

The fantastical elements of the story help pull the book away from sometimes-dry historical fiction. But the real world elements ground the story, and also save time most fantasy epics must spend on "world building." I was pleasantly surprised by the concoction Naomi Novik brewed, and I plan to keep going with the series. This first volume, I'd grade a B+.

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