THE TEMERAIRE SERIES
What does it mean to possess a sense of humanity? Does the idea of humanity only reside in the heart and head of forward-looking, bi-pedal, opposable thumb-owning hairless apes? In other words, what you see on the street or in the mirror everyday? Or can large intelligent talking dragons be in possession of the elusive and less and less seen idea of humanity? That question is the central, if unspoken, idea that runs through the top-notch Temeraire novels by Naomi Novik.
I have to hand it to Ms. Novik, she hit a home run with her very first novel, His Majesty’s Dragon, and then she continued to produce with the other books in the series. Temeraire falls under the category of alternative history since it involves real incidents, places and people a reader would recognize however it does go off the reservation with dragons and alterations to historical events of our world and time.
If you are unfamiliar with Temeraire here are the basics. The series begins in 1805. Napoleon is marching hither and yon on the continent, wailing on armies and nations getting in his way. The last viable option against the tyranny of the Mad Corsican is Great Britain with her oaken wall of ships of the line, her small but tough army and her brave Ariel Corps of dragons and their crews (shades of the RAF in WWII). While on patrol in the North Atlantic, Captain William Laurence of HMS Reliant overtakes and captures a French frigate that has a dragon egg on board the likes of which nobody has ever seen and is near to hatching. Capt. Laurence knows that Britain is behind the curve dragon wise so he piles on the sails in an attempt to get the egg to the Ariel Corps before it hatches. He fails and Temeraire is hatched on ship and chooses Will Laurence as his companion and handler.
From there on we are thrust into the adventures shared by these two friends and warriors. Their adventures, through the books, take them to Africa, China, Turkey, Australia and points in between. The books are chock full of sea, air and land battles, some famous like the Nile, Trafalgar and Jena and some entirely made up like the Battle of Shoeburyness (which is more or less a version of Waterloo but set in England.) There is high adventure and political intrigue galore. The books are as a fun read as you can find. On that level the series is a smashing success. The true genius of the Temeraire books is that it doesn’t just stay on the action adventure level but goes to a whole other level dealing with some important ideas like what humanity is, the true meaning of liberty, freedom of choice and a dozen other heady ideas like the abolition of slavery and the role of women in combat.
Novik, to her credit, worked hard on the dragon concept for the books. She figured out different breeds for each nation, how they operate in combat, how nations deal with dragons and then she gave each individual dragon a personality of their own. I noticed that the dragons tend to take on aspects of their handlers. The Dragons possess varied levels of intelligence and capabilities.
The foundation of Novik’s series is the relationship between Will Laurence and Temeraire. There is a palpable feeling of mutual love and respect that is evident in the series and it evolves in a natural and logical manner during the course of the books. It’s that love and respect and the fundamental decency of both Laurence and Temeraire that make them chose a course of action in book 4 that has major league repercussions for both Laurence, Temeraire and the readers of the series.
The way Novik structured her stories is interesting. The first two books primarily deal with Temeraire. It’s about his acquisition, hatching, his early life with Laurence on the Reliant, his training and first combat. Book two deals with Temeraire’s return to China. Temeraire is a breed known as a Celestial, the rarest breed on earth. There are only a handful of them and they are companions to the Royal Family of China. Temeraire was sent away before he hatched due to dynastic politics and the eternal struggle of China about looking inward or joining the world and was brought back to China for the same reasons. Book 3 was the change of focus book, more of a pure adventure story about the overland return to England via Turkey in order to retrieve a very special dragon egg promised to England by the Ottoman Empire. This is also where the focus of the book begins to change and Will Laurence moves to the forefront. The next two books deal with Laurence and why he is the way he is and why he made the personally devastating choice he made.
The last and best thing about the books I’ll get into are the side characters like the other dragons and captains, the crewman, the bad guys, the historical figures like Lord Nelson and the pre and post Duke of Wellington. All these characters are well written and interesting and add much realism to the books since they are all fully realized characters that you either like or hate. To me when you react strongly to characters in books, both good and bad, that is a sign of outstanding writing which this series has in spades.
Without any reservations whatsoever I recommend the living hell out of this series. If you just want to be entertained while reading, you will be. If you like your fantasy books laced with some rather deep philosophical ideas that don’t inhibit the fun and adventure elements, this is the book for you. Lastly if you like alternative type history books you will like the Temeraire series.