1) The unequaled joy of finding a new series. Not just picking up a debut and thinking, "this is going to be one to watch", but reading the first book in a long-established series and realising that, "holy cow, I've got four more waiting for me!".
2) The horrible shame of realising that people have been recommending those books to you for years. Fortunately, my friends aren't the sort to rub it in with expletive-strewn text messages (Bex) or say "I told you so" in the comments on this very thread.
So it is with mixed (but not really) feelings that I confess that His Majesty's Dragon (2006) knocked my socks off. I read the first book in one evening, the second the next and the third and fourth on a flight over to the US. I'm now consciously avoiding buying the fifth because, good lord, I'm going to run out of these before long.
Gushing aside, what is it about His Majesty's Dragon that really hit the spot?
First, for those that aren't familiar with the Temeraire series, the elevator pitch is "Hornblower with dragons". The Napoleonic Wars are in full swing, with a beleaguered Britain fending off the constant advances of the French Emperor. Vast ships, great clothes, thundering guns, and, now, dragons.
Captain William Lawrence is a long-serving and decorated member of His Majesty's Navy. When they capture a French frigate, Will finds himself in temporary possession of a dragon egg: one of unknown species and very near to hatching. Will understands the strategic importance of the dragons. So when the dragon hatches, he finds it his duty to take the fledgling under his own wing (pun unintended and somewhat inaccurate).
Poor Will. From being an ambitious and feted Captain in the most lauded branch of the military, he's suddenly, irrevocably cast down into the Aerial Corps - the most disdained. If the Navy is an appropriate home for a gentleman, the Aerial Corps most certainly is not. Will's intended swiftly breaks their connection and his father practically disowns him. His former Naval companions give him their condolences, but that's cold comfort. From fighting at Nelson's side, he's now a nobody.
He, does, however, have Temeraire.
Temeraire, Will's fledgling, is magnificent - in all senses of the word. As a rare breed of Chinese dragon, he's a welcome addition to the over-stretched British military. He's big ("heavy-weight"), smart and a quick learner. Thanks to Will's naval training and Temeraire's natural intelligence, the two soar through their training program. More importantly, Temeraire's curiosity and naivete are the perfect companion to Will's sense of duty and discipline. Will provides the dragon with focus and meaning, Temeraire gives Will a sense of warmth and open-mindedness.
The relationship between the two character is the heart of the book. Throughout His Majesty's Dragon, Will gradually reprioritises everything that he once held sacred. Although his duty to the country remains paramount, Temeraire teaches Will how to question authority (a theme that grows throughout the series). Will's new position as social exile also gives him a new perspective. The ironclad rules of propriety have a different meaning for him, due to his new home on the fringes. Still, what Will first sees as a sacrifice soon becomes an awakening - his friendship with Temeraire outweighs all the trials and frustrations.
If I mistakenly give the impression that His Majesty's Dragon is all lingering glances and delicate touches, far from it. Ms. Novik writes with all the understated elegance of C.S. Forester and Patrick O'Brien - depicting self-controlled (tight-laced) military men in a minimalist way that still manages to convey the full gamut of human emotion. A raised eyebrow, an incredulous look, a dropped title or over-lingering pause, true to her literary forebears, these are all the author ever needs.
Nor is His Majesty's Dragon merely paranormal bromance. Ms. Novik commits herself to the Napoleonic era both on and off the battlefield. Although the niceties of Georgian social life might strike some as frivolous, Ms. Novik does her very best to visualise what the "real" impact of a dragon would be on the sense and sensibility world of the Regency era. And, perhaps best of all, His Majesty's Dragon is rife with well-crafted fantasy battles. Although the narrative stays with Will and Temeraire, the author tries to convey the total picture of each skirmish - dragons, artillery, ships and all. Despite the obviously fantastic elements, Ms. Novik keeps to her literary style. The battles are less about personal heroism, but the importance of discipline and teamwork. Formations and tactics carry the day - not stableboys with vorpal blades. It is both captivating and immensely fun.
If His Majesty's Dragon were solely "Hornblower on a dragon" or "Sharpe with fire-breathers", it would be enjoyable solely as a display of enthusiastic ingenuity. But the book isn't just a clever conceit. Although Ms. Novik captures the setting and the style perfectly, the focus is always on the two main characters and their relationships - both with one another and the outside world. It would be all too easy to use Will and Temeraire solely as guides through the world, but the author never gives in to the temptation. They're warm, fascinating characters that grow from page to page. Although their heroism makes for a good story, their humanity is what makes a great book.
By Jared (@pornokitsch), who wants a Winchester named Travis.