Naomi Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon is a unique combination of fantasy and Napoleonic conflict. The book, the first in a trilogy, is set during England’s 19th-century struggle against Napoleon’s France. Novik did not set out to write just an historical novel, however. Instead, she wrote an alternate history of sorts, one in which dragons play an integral role.
Will Laurence commands the English warship Reliant. He encounters a French frigate and captures it (and its cargo). He and his crew are astounded to discover the most unexpected item among the booty: namely, a dragon egg. The battle for supremacy in Europe has a different cast here, as each side possesses a fleet of dragons (and dragon riders), which are used in aerial combat. Clearly, the egg was destined for Napoleon’s forces; however, it is unclear why the French ship was so far out to sea since the egg appears almost ready to hatch. There are dangers associated with young dragons – and a navy ship is no place to keep one.
Laurence hopes to get the egg back to England before it hatches (undoubtedly, it will be worth quite a bit). Unfortunately, he is unable to do so. His crew must submit themselves to an odd ceremony after the hatching: namely, they have to make themselves available to the dragon as something of a companion. The companion so chosen will be “imprinted” onto the dragon’s mind, and will become the dragon’s rider. Normally, this process is done with a trained group of members of the aerial corps. Since it has to happen right away, however, Laurence and his crew do what they can with a makeshift ceremony.
The dragon chooses Laurence – which means that Laurence’s life as he had known it has come to an end. The aerial corps is a closed band of loners, largely cut off from and misunderstood by the rest of society. Their constant companions are the great beasts, the majority of whom can speak. (The intellectual level of dragons varies, however, and this will be a component of the story.) The dragon, who is named Temeraire, will have no other rider: and thus begins Laurence’s transformation from sea captain to a captain in the uncertain and ethereal world of England’s Aerial Corps.
The book focuses most of its attention on Laurence’s indoctrination into this strange new world (as strange, in its own way, as the culture aboard a British warship of the period seems to contemporary readers). He and Temeraire must be trained in combat, and so they are sent through combat school (albeit at a rapidly accelerated pace, as England can use all the dragons it can muster). And the book also details Laurence’s growing friendship with the dragon (who can, after all, talk quite well and is very inquisitive).
The book is a rousing and entertaining fusion of historical realities with one of the most enduring mythic images. The interjection of dragons and aerial combat into the Napoleonic Wars is just bizarre enough that it works; Novik’s deft development of her characters, especially that of Laurence himself, is largely responsible for this. In many respects the book seems historically accurate, and in keeping with the tradition of writers such as Patrick O’Brian. The fantasy aspects of the story are handled responsibly, and developed with a similar sense of authenticity. Were talking dragons the size of passenger jets to have existed during the Napoleonic wars, they might well have been utilized in combat in much the way Novik envisions.
His Majesty’s Dragon is a deftly constructed, well-plotted “alternate history” that manages to feel original rather than cobbled together from mismatched parts (something which was a distinct possibility given the unique story elements Novik combines here). While fans of historical fiction might well chafe a bit at the insertion of mythical beasts into a historical framework where novelists are applauded for their realistic presentation of the era, Novik develops the tale with an engaging style that might well introduce some fantasy readers to the wonders of their own world’s past.