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Temeraire, books 1 to 3

by Naomi Novik

Reviews by Simeon Shoul

His Majesty's Dragon: Temeraire Book 1

by Naomi Novik

(Ballantine Books, $7.50, 353 pages, paperback, 2006.)

cover scanIt is 1805 and on the heaving seas of the North Atlantic Captain William Laurence and the men of his ship, Reliant, seize a French frigate after a sharp fight. To their surprise and delight the frigate's cargo includes a dragon's egg, to their dismay the egg is hard-shelled, within weeks or even days of hatching. Unlike the men of the Aerial Corps, whose business it is to harness, ride and crew the dragons who form Britain's airborne shield against the hostile French, the Navy knows nothing of how to manage such a creature.

Nonetheless, for the sake of their nation, embattled with Napoleon's tyrannical, expansionist France, with its own powerful dragon corps, they must try. Consternation arises when the new-hatched dragonet selects for its handler not the knock-kneed Midshipman chosen by lot for the task, but Captain Laurence himself!

Bowing to his duty, Laurence resigns himself to the loss of his hard-earned position, his career in the Navy, the respect of his family, and society, as he gives himself over to the care and education of a wilful, precocious charge, fated to 'weigh-out' in excess of 20 tons. To do this he must join the Aerial Corps, notorious for its lax manners, isolated from normal people, and as he discovers, prone to practices thoroughly shocking to a gentleman!

Laurence, with Temeraire his inquisitive, naive, gaffe-prone companion, must manage the transition from salt-water warrior to airborne. He has to assert his command over fractious crew-men and resentful subordinates, correct wrongs and injustices within the aerial corps, and take his place in the ferocious battles against French Dragon squadrons over the bitter North Sea and the White Cliffs of Dover...

This he does in fine style, and in a stylishly told, meticulously mannered book. Novik has perfectly caught the tone and vocabulary of the early nineteenth century. Every element of dress, language, etiquette and period is clear, convincing, but not interfering. The story has pace, brisk action, intrigue, and moments of profound pathos as Laurence discovers that even dragons can be abused and misused, and are prey to grief and weakness.

Temeraire, for his part, is immensely engaging, fully realised in personality. Precociously intelligent, valiant, often amusing, his social blunders alone should give Laurence grey hairs. The other dragons, and people, in the story are equally well rendered, distinctly individual and convincing.

Novik has set a high mark with this book, standing out clearly and forcefully from the crowd with excellent tale-telling and an instantly attractive central pair of characters.

Throne of Jade: Temeraire Book 2

by Naomi Novik

(Ballantine Books, $7.50, 398 pages, paperback, 2006.)

cover scanFollowing their defeat of Napoleon's attempted invasion of England, Temeraire and his Captain, William Laurence, are only briefly lauded as heroes. Hot on the heels of victory comes a Chinese embassy, heatedly demanding that Temeraire, a Chinese dragon of exalted status seized in the egg during a naval battle, must be returned to China.

Laurence is boxed in by his duty. The Government, and the Admiralty, show every sign of caving in to the Chinese demands, afraid of antagonising this powerful, mysterious nation. Despite their protests he and Temeraire are shortly consigned to a naval Dragon Transport vessel (the aircraft-carrier of the early nineteenth century) bound for the orient.

The voyage that follows takes them along the sultry African coast, where Temeraire is outraged by the slaving stations (still run, in 1806, by British merchants). Highly intelligent, and not at all impressed by the restrictive, biased laws of a British state where property is deemed far more important than the common people, Laurence's dragon has begun to question the very foundations of British society.

To this worry, Laurence also has to add the insidious attempts of the Chinese envoys to work their ways into Temeraire's affections, the less-than-helpful efforts of Mr Hammond, a Foreign Office official, whose only goal is an improvement in Anglo-Sino relations, and news from the distant, continuing war against Napoleon, which is far from good.

In her second outing, Naomi Novik has again created a lively, detailed, compelling story. Perhaps it is a little slow at times (a danger, when so much of the book is consumed by a lengthy sea voyage), but even these passages are well handled, and full of interest. Novik is taking pains to give her saga more depth than that of a simple 'slam-bang' naval and aerial combat story. The slow awakening of social conscience in her principal characters adds an unexpected dimension, and is certain to store up more trouble for them when they return to England! In sum, this book is a confirmation of the expectations established in her first novel, and the Temeraire series is shaping up to be one of the stand-out fantasies of the decade.

Black Powder War: Temeraire Book 3

by Naomi Novik

(Ballantine Books, $7.50, 365 pages, paperback, 2006.)

cover scanFollowing their successful foray to China, where they managed to convince the Chinese authorities to accept Captain William Laurence as official companion to Temeraire, one of the incredibly rare Chinese Celestial Dragons, Laurence and Temeraire are looking forward to a return to Britain, and a resumption of their key role in the aerial war against Napoleon.

To their surprise, as they are waiting for a fair wind in Macao harbour, a courier from the West arrives, with urgent orders commanding them to travel at once to Istanbul, there to collect three rare Turkish dragon eggs, the fruit of long and difficult negotiations with the Sultan's court.

In the company of a sardonic Anglo-Tibetan guide, Temeraire, Laurence, and his crew, must struggle through the shifting sands and high passes of the ancient Silk Road across Central Asia. Challenging encounters with raiding tribesmen and feral bands of dragons add spice to a vivid travellers' tale, which grows only more compelling when they arrive in Istanbul to find strange intrigues and old enemies awaiting them.

Their road home is neither short, nor quick, but it is consistently exciting. Novik has a fine, scholarly command of the history of the Napoleonic wars, and a splendid flair for working dragon-combat into the fabric of the classic continental battles. She also has a knack for timely wit. There are some splendid characters in this book, promising much for future novels, and some delightful moral quandaries, as dragonly conscience has to be reconciled with the expediency of war, and human law.

Work this good is regrettably rare. It is still rarer to find it so well sustained. Novik is producing absolutely first-rate material, and I look forward to the next instalment with anticipation, and impatience!

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