Thursday, May 25, 2006

Review: "His Majesty's Dragon" by Naomi Novik

Having read fantasy for more than 20 years, I think I've seen dragons used in just about every way possible. But on rare occasion, I'll run into a book like Naomi Novik's "His Majesty's Dragon" ($7.50, Del Rey).

Originally published under the title "Temeraire" in the U.K., the alternate history begins aboard the ship of British Capt. Will Laurence during the Napoleonic Wars. When Laurence captures a French frigate, he's thrilled to discover a dragon egg in the hold. He's less thrilled to find it is near to hatching. Knowing the dragon's value to his country's Aerial Corps and knowing it must be bound early to be controlled, he and his officers draw straws to see which one will attempt to harness the dragon. But when the egg hatches, the beast ignores the man attempting to harness it and instead bonds with Laurence. Knowing his duty, he accepts that he will have to give up his proud and comfortable Navy life to become an aviator.

As the dragon, named Temeraire after a ship Laurence once admired, grows, the captain's reluctant sense of duty gives way to a deep affection for the dragon. The bond is strengthened when they discover that Temeraire is, in fact, a Chinese Imperial dragon, an extremely rare and intelligent breed and further through their experiences in training and action.

At heart, this is the story of a man and his dragon, and with Novik's considerable talents, if it were left at that it would probably still be worth a read. But here she gives us so much more, including a completely different view of fantasy's most popular creature.

"His Majesty's Dragon" reads a bit like one of Patrick O'Brian's naval adventures, except, of course, that it takes place hundreds of feet above the ground. Full crews scrambling around atop a moving dragon, cheating death with every move, provide for some truly awesome imagery.

Even more interesting is the personality that Novik injects into her dragons. Each beast is as distinctive and well-developed as her human characters, perhaps even moreso at times. It leaves the reader longing to meet more of them.

Though this is Novik's debut, it certainly doesn't read like one. In fact, "His Majesty's Dragon" is easily one of the best fantasies I've read in a long, long time. It's a must-read for both dragon-lovers and fans of historical adventure novels.

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