When I was young I was fascinated with European history, especially the Napoleonic wars that changed the shape of Europe from 1798 to the general's final defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Aside from the fact that he conquered most of Europe, Napoleon was also responsible for the rise of nationalism among countries that had been former subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many of those countries he occupied actually looked to him as an example until his troops showed up on their doorstep. However, that was knowledge I only came by later when studying the era in school. As a kid I garnered my history lessons from the books of two British authors, Ronald Welsh and C. S Forester. Welsh's books followed the fortunes of the Carey family in war from the Crusades to WWI, while Forester's books traced the career of British naval officer Horatio Hornblower from Midshipman to Admiral.
It's been a long time since I read any books of that type, and to be honest, I didn't really think there was any way an author could come up with an original enough way of presenting the same history over again to make it interesting enough to read. Well, I have to tell you that when I'm wrong I'm wrong. As I'm sure many of you have already discovered American author Naomi Novik not only created the means to do just that, but has done so in a manner which recreates everything that made those original books so wonderful to read at the same time. If you're like me and had never read any of her Temeraire series, Random House Inc is releasing the perfect answer on October 27, 2009, In His Majesty's Service, an omnibus collection of the first three of the five books so far published; His Majesty's Dragon, Throne Of Jade, and Black Powder War. As a bonus they've also thrown in a previously unpublished short story set in the world she has created: "In Autumn A White Dragon Looks Over The Wide River".
In this world, dragons exist and have the ability to communicate with humans. Not all dragons are fire-breathers; some are prized for their weight, some for their manoeuvrability, while others for their ability to spit acid. However, no matter how valuable a resource they might be considered in times of war, in British society it's not the done thing for a gentleman to become an aviator. Buying a commission in the navy, the cavalry, or even the infantry is an acceptable occupation for a younger son of a good family, but Captain William Laurence of the Royal Navy knows just what his father's reaction will be when through sheer chance he ends up bonding with a dragon.
It matters little that his dragon, whom he names Temeraire after the first ship he served on, turns out to be an exceedingly rare dragon of Chinese breeding, a Celestial. He knows his father will look on it as a stain on the family's good name. However he soon discovers that he neither cares, or has time for his father's, or anybody else's, prejudices. For one thing he is astounded at Temeraire's capacity for learning and intelligence. However what amazes him most of all is the emotional bond that develops between him and Temeraire. He soon discovers he prefers his company over that of most humans.
While the first book in the omnibus, His Majesty's Dragon is mainly concerned with developing the characters of both Temeraire and Laurence and establishing the world they live in, we do find out pieces of information which will bear significantly on the duos future adventures. Laurence had captured Temeraire's egg from a French vessel that it attacked as it would normally during the course of battle. However what they didn't know at the time was that the egg was meant to be a present for Napoleon from the Chinese Emperor.
So even though Temeraire almost single-handed (winged) managed to repulse Napoleon's invasion fleet off the coast of Britain, the British government seriously considers sending him back to the Chinese when the emperor's second son shows up demanding he be handed over. In Throne Of Jade we follow Laurence and Temeraire as they travel to China in an attempt to plead their case. It's while in China that the two come face to face with how unfairly dragons are treated in the West. In European countries dragons are kept at a far remove from humans, and treated with only a little more courtesy than other domesticated animals. However in China they discover the society is set up to accommodate both species, from city streets being wide enough for dragons to stroll through them freely, dragons being paid for their services, knowing how to read and write, to having positions of authority both in the military and civilian life.
While Black Powder War details their return to Great Britain, we also learn that as a result of their activities in China they have made for themselves, and Britain, a deadly enemy. Lien is a giant albino dragon who holds a personal grudge against them for their role in the death of her rider. That he was trying to kill Laurence and overthrow his father the emperor of China is irrelevant, and now she has offered her services to Napoleon in order to see Britain overthrown and Temeraire dead. What can one dragon do you might wonder? Well plenty once she's able to convince Napoleon to start using dragons the way the Chinese do and teaching them the battle plans she studied in China.
While all dragons carry a certain number of crew, nobody had thought to use them to act as troop and supply transports until Lien suggested it to Napoleon. Laurence and Temeraire witness the success of her new tactics first hand as they barely escape from the debacle of the defeat of the Prussian army at the hands of Napoleon while making their way home from China. For using dragons to increase their mobility the French army is able to advance so fast that they take the Prussians by surprise and cut off their planned retreat through Poland to join up with the Russian army. Even though our heroes manage to escape from Europe they are returning to an England totally bereft of allies and faced with the unenviable task of trying to convince the British high command to change their means of employing dragons or fall to Napoleon as surely as Europe did.
What's amazing about these books is how well Novik has managed to not only bring 19th-century Europe to life, both in the attitudes of her characters and her descriptions of society, but how seamlessly she has integrated dragons into the mix. As we get to know dragons through the eyes of Laurence, as his awareness of their capabilities and sentience grows, so does ours. Like most people of his class and generation, he never had considered dragons beyond their uses in war. Now that his eyes have been opened to the their place in society in China, he knows that things will have to change, We watch with astonishment as Temeraire learns to not only speak Chinese but to write its characters, first using a claw. In many ways Temeraire is like an exceptionally bright teenager who is only now beginning to realize just how curtailed his activities have been by the adult world.
At the same time Novik has done an equally credible job of bringing aerial combat with dragons alive. Similar to naval engagements with boarding parties and rifle fire, there's the added thrill of the dragons assaulting each other, and of course the dangers involved with fighting pitched battles on the back of a bucking, twisting, weaving, and roaring dragon. If the guy wire holding you on to your ride is somehow cut, you could very well find yourself tumbling thousands of feet to your death. Like navy crews who spend days on end in the rigging of their ships with the deck seemingly miles away, those wishing to crew a dragon need a good head for heights.
Obviously Novik has taken some liberties with history – there were no dragons present at the battle of Trafalgar as far as I know, but she has done much to bring new life into what had become a moribund and predictable genre. I've never been a fan of alternate history, but instead of floating some what if premise about the course of history, Novik has merely added another ingredient to the mix to make historical fiction that much more interesting and exciting. If you've not read any of her Temeraire series yet, I not only recommend it highly, but can think of no better introduction then the omnibus In His Majesty's Service containing its first three books. The Napoleonic Wars, and historical fiction, will never be the same again.