I had a great time buddy-reading this with the lovely Alex over at Spells and Spaceships, and you can find his thoughts on Temeraire here.
While this wasn’t a perfectly-timed read for Alex, it was just what I needed. I agree with him that this is a book to curl up with, and I was lucky enough to be able to do just that over a long weekend during this fast-receding summer. So, I’m afraid I’m going to be that most annoying of things (again): the super-enthused and bouncy book fan.
You have been warned. If you’re after a balanced, even-handed review, Alex is your man.
Because I wasn’t expecting all the feelings I had while reading this. Along with Alex I didn’t warm to Laurence immediately, but I liked his rather correct, by-the-book character and found him easy enough to get on with. As soon as I met Temeraire, however, I was smitten. This beautiful dragon became my favourite character in less time than in takes to turn a page. He is funny, adorable, sensitive, so very, very intelligent and yet charmingly innocent. And because of the nature of their partnership and the feelings Tem inspires in his friend, Laurence becomes more loveable too.
If I was a little nervous going in that this story would be all military manoeuvres and nautical talk – I know depressingly little about the Napoleonic Wars – but I was soon relieved of that worry. While Novik works her Aerial Corps into the conflict sensitively, so that they’re not so much of an advantage that they remove the need for the British and French navies and armies, the story is not dominated by combat. Instead, and very appropriately, the ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity are explored through the relationship between human and dragon.
From the start it is clear that Temeraire is an intelligent, questioning creature trying to understand his place in the world. As an egg he was a valuable commodity being used to further an international relationship (and there’s still questions about that at the end of the book). His delivery having been intercepted by, and his having hatched aboard, Laurence’s ship means that he is now British property and an advantage they cannot afford not to utilise. But as he says himself:
“I have never met the King; I am not his property, like a sheep … if I belong to anyone, it is to you, and you to me.”
And he questions Laurence’s feelings of loyalty and duty to the crown. He questions, too, why he can eat as many fish as he likes while at sea, but not sheep and cows because “on land everything seems to be spoken for” and later opines that since dragons have had no part in the making of British laws, they should not be bound by them. In the end he decides that duty, for him, means to stand by his friends and support them to the best of his ability. He is, in Laurence’s words, “a very Jacobin at heart” and it’s hard not to love him all the more for it.
Novik addresses the responsibilities riders have for their dragons in a number of other relationships in the story, most notably in those between Levitas and his rider Rankin and Excidium and her rider Jane. While not all dragons are as intelligent as Temeraire, they are all as affectionate towards the human partners they have imprinted upon. In Levitas’ case, this affection is desperately ill-founded; in the case of Excidium far less so, as her rider Jane has already had a daughter specifically for the purpose of taking over as Excidium’s partner when she herself eventually dies (dragons being that much longer lived than humans). This whole idea is so interesting that I really hope Novik will explore further in the following volumes of this series.
There are many more things to love about this book: it’s pitch perfect use of language to create a sense of the period; the lovely humour; all the dragons I haven’t mentioned – Celeritas, Maximus, Lily, Praecursoris, and so many others; the incredible battle scenes towards the end; all the feelings (in case I hadn’t already mentioned that); and all the discoveries along the way. But to talk for any length of time about these things would lead to spoilers, incoherence and, eventually, sobbing. And I don’t have a hankie to hand, right now.
This was a rollercoaster read for me – I was delighted, I was worried, I was guffawing, I was crying, I swore quite a bit, and finally, I was replete. It had a steady pace, plenty of drama (more emotional than military, it has to be said) and a host of great characters. The worldbuilding was well done, I thought, too. As Alex quite rightly points out in his review, using a historical period and its events in a fantasy story can curtail the fantastical elements and/or ruin the period tone and the reader’s immersion. I didn’t feel like Temeraire had either of these problems and found it very easy to believe in this alternative history. I am beyond excited that there are so many more books in this series (I was convinced there were only another three, imagine my delight when I discovered there were nine books in total!) and, like Alex, I have the next two ready (more by luck than judgment) to read when I’m in the mood, (or, more importantly, have the time). I am very much looking forward to reading more about Tem and Laurence and I’m interested to see in what direction their continuing story will ultimately go.