“It is very nice how many books there are, indeed. And on so many subjects!”
I originally bought this for a Book Smugglers readalong (as part of my effort to be more sociable online), a project which failed spectacularly, as, embroiled deep in the Lovecraftian labyrinth that was The Haunter of the Dark, I missed the readalong date by about a week. Nevertheless, since the thing was on my TBR shelf, I went ahead and read it anyway. And a jolly good thing I did too.
Temeraire is the kind of novel for which the word “solid” was invented. An alternative version of the Napoleonic Wars, it focuses on the developing bond between ex-Navy captain Will Laurence and his newly-hatched fighting dragon Temeraire. Think Persuasion but with dragons if Anne had never got back with Wentworth and Wentworth stole a dragon egg from the French. Kind of. Not really.
Actually, the comparison with Austen came up not because of any kind of plot similarity – in fact, one of the strengths of Novik’s novel is that it more or less completely sidelines romantic relationships – but because Novik is excellent, really excellent, at rendering the culture of that time in a way that feels authentic. Her dialogue is period-specific, but never stilted or artificial, and in particular her focus on the difficulties of interpersonal relationships seems accurate for the time: as a Navy captain and a gentleman, Laurence is constantly aware – almost hyperaware – of the demands of propriety, in his dealings with his inferiors, with women, and especially with Temeraire, his dragon. There’s a sense in which his society is so repressive, so focused on the importance of being gentlemanly or proper, that Laurence’s only really meaningful relationship can be with someone outside the rules of those society, as dragons are. Intelligent (for the most part) and deeply devoted to their handlers, the dragons are a delight, especially lovely Temeraire: precocious, hungry for knowledge, excited at being in the world, and wonderfully empathetic. I just wanted to hug him. All the time. And watching Laurence’s reluctant, growing affection for his dragon is simply heartwarming; I wanted to spend as much time with these two as humanly possible. (Lucky that there’s about eight more books, then!)
The one wrong note I felt in Novik’s otherwise careful character work was when Laurence, always reserved, always a gentleman, casually rolled into bed with a female aviator; but it’s a testament to how thoroughly uninterested the novel is in such things that this hardly intruded on my reading experience at all. That’s not to say that Novik isn’t interested in her female characters, though: they are all well-drawn, determined to use what limited opportunities their society gives them to choose the kind of lives they want for themselves (hi, Edith Galman). I love that we get to see Laurence’s sexist shock on discovering that the Aerial Corps sends women into battle, even if he does get over it pretty quickly. Temeraire is an excellent illustration of how strong, nuanced female characters can exist in historical fiction, despite the historical prejudices against women.
Temeraire isn’t a big novel. It’s not ambitious; it doesn’t push the boundaries of its genre; it probably doesn’t add to the sum total of human achievement. But it is a lovely, intelligent exploration of a relationship between a human and his dragon, and how the mores of a repressive culture affect that relationship. It’s a thoroughly satisfying world to inhabit; it’s “solid”, in that there’s nothing to complain about or object to. I’d definitely read it again, and I’ll certainly continue with the Temeraire series.
L-space news (kind of): I’m having difficulty with in-post links, so I’m trying a new thing: links relevant to posts on the first page of the blog are going in the Post Links menu on the right. Just in case you were wondering.