A Love Story Between a Man and His Dragon: Or Why Temeraire Deserves a Hugo

his-majestys-dragonMy recipe for success has always been: take something you’re interested in and add dragons. It started back at the age of 13 when I first read Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern and it continued straight through 2006, when I picked up His Majesty’s Dragon, the first in the Temeraire series.

And I don’t just mean any dragon. There has to be something noble about them. There has to be some great love shared between the dragon and rider. The dragon has to be good and kind, strong and fierce. Everything, thankfully, that Temeraire proves himself to be over the nine books of this series.

The Temeraire series, named after the dragon at the heart of its plot, has been nominated for the first Hugo for Best Series to be awarded. The series is complete at nine installments. Like anything, it has its highs and lows, and some highs are very high, and some lows are quite low, but all in all it is very deserving of the nomination.

Some minor spoilers ahead.

The Temeraire series began with three volumes in 2006: His Majesty’s Dragon, which was nominated for a Hugo that year, Throne of Jade, and Black Powder War. Peter Jackson (you know, the one who made the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies happen) optioned the series in September 2006, but despite some reports that he had the WETA workshop working on dragon models, I haven’t heard anything from that front in a while. The final installment of the series, League of Dragons, was just published in 2016.

81AFZzn302LNine volumes was almost enough for the books to truly fulfill their aim: a retelling of the Napoleonic Wars with dragons as an aerial corps. I say “almost” with purpose, because if there’s one aspect of storytelling that might be Naomi Novik’s downfall, it’s pacing. Several volumes in the middle of the series (the sixth in particular, which was solely a race across the continent of Australia in pursuit of an egg) dragged on quite a bit, while the final installment had to wrap up every loose end imaginable in 400 pages.

But even in the parts that dragged, Novik’s strengths shone through. The heart of this story is the aforementioned Temeraire and his captain, William Laurence, who had been a naval captain before taking a French ship captive that held Temeraire’s egg. Laurence was incredibly reluctant to leave the navy, which led to some interesting tension in the first book, both between him and the other aviators and between him and Temeraire. Aviators, here, refers to anyone in the aerial corps. A dragon has one captain, but in the case of a larger dragon (like Temeraire), one can have up to 30 or 40 crew members that are also referred to as aviators. This actually makes the transition a bit easier for Laurence, because in a lot of ways it’s like being on a ship but the ship flies and also has feelings. It also explains some of the tension between Laurence and other aviators, as there are plenty very deserving first mates on other dragon crews that have been waiting for their opportunity to step up to captain. Laurence coming from the navy is a personal affront to their pecking order.

During his transition, Laurence became a perfect foil for introducing the reader to the aviators, their dragons, their customs, and their somewhat lackadaisical discipline. Imagine, if you will, the absolute shock when Laurence found out that there are female aviators. Or when he sat down to dinner and was painfully aware that the aviators around him completely eschewed proper protocol when addressing their fellows at the table.

The relationship between Temeraire and Laurence goes through its trials in the course of the series. It’s so uncertain at first, just trying to keep Temeraire fed and happy, with a lot of consternation on the part of the other aviators because Laurence came from the navy. Attempts are made to separate them to no avail; Temeraire will have no other captain, and Laurence (after a brief amount of soul searching) will not give him up.

Temeraire is different than other dragons in the British aerial corps. For one thing, he’s an incredibly rare Chinese breed called a Celestial. And (this is a slight spoiler for the second book) there are only eight Celestials in existence, and all of them are companions to the Chinese royal family. This, by the way, takes an entire book to resolve. Celestials are smarter than a lot of other dragons and have different abilities that make Temeraire very valuable to the British in combat. Temeraire’s intelligence is a source of pride for Laurence as well as a burden at times. Temeraire is smart enough to question their orders, why he should be fighting in a war at all, why dragons are treated the way they are, why people should ever be frightened of him or any dragon, why they must be kept separate from society, etc.

Napoleon

There’s a time that Temeraire believes Laurence to be dead, which would send most dragons into a depressive state. Temeraire is devastated, to be sure, but uses Laurence’s death as a call to action. He manages to convince other lazy, well-fed dragons to join him and form a unit of their own to fight the French and seek vengeance for Laurence’s death.

Every single aspect of this world was so well-thought-out and researched, from the various kinds of dragons that would evolve across the globe (and this series literally spanned the entire globe; the only continent they did not visit was Antarctica), to the way these societies across the globe evolved to interact with their dragons. The hierarchy of a dragon’s crew was very similar to the naval ships, which Laurence was familiar with, but things continued to surprise him, and us as readers. Dragons, for instance, are very firmly emotionally tied to their captains, and all the enemy would need to do to capture a dragon is capture its captain. There were several instances where Laurence was asked to run away from danger instead of face it and fight, which went against his better nature but kept Temeraire satisfied.

Prior to Temeraire’s interference, British dragons were kept in coverts (think of hollowed out places in a hillside, open to the elements), and fed raw meat. They weren’t thought of as anything but beasts, like a war horse, only slightly more deadly and expensive to maintain. Temeraire was never content with this lot, especially after a visit to China in book two. Chinese dragons weren’t kept in coverts away from society. Streets in China were big enough for dragons to walk down; they lived among humans, owned their own businesses, and had capital of their own to use. They were given a voice and an agency that was missing in Britain (and most of Europe), and Temeraire sought this change.

league_of_dragons-1.jpegSo it’s a story about love, a story about war, but also a story about revolution.

I will confess, I finished book seven with every intention of writing a post about how this series didn’t deserve a Hugo, because that’s how much book six and seven dragged. At some point, it felt like Novik was playing Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? and substituting Temeraire and Laurence in place of Carmen. While I do feel like the series could have had a tighter focus and been the better for it, the final two volumes convinced me of the worthiness of this series.

The ninth, in particular, plays very well to the strengths Novik had always displayed in this series: her world-building, the really excellent combat scenes, and the relationship between man and dragon. While, again, it could have been at least 100 pages longer and taken more time with the defeat of a tyrant, it still managed to get everything addressed in the page count it did have.

At the end of it all, it’s really just a story about a man and his dragon, and how their devotion to each other changed the world. How is that not deserving of a Hugo?

13 Comments

  • Shara White July 18, 2017 at 10:09 am

    I never did get around to reading this series. I read the opening pages of His Majesty’s Dragon after reading and loving Uprooted, but it didn’t hook me. I’m not sure if I’ll get around to trying again or not, because I never did grow up with that affinity for dragons. 🙂

    Reply
    • Merrin July 18, 2017 at 3:10 pm

      I feel like you either want to consume all the dragon media or you don’t.

      Reply
      • Shara White July 18, 2017 at 5:50 pm

        Good point. So with that in mind… did you read Eragon when it came out?

        Reply
        • Merrin July 19, 2017 at 10:38 am

          I didn’t when it first came out, but then I saw the movie and it was just so awful that I had to find out if it was the fault of the source material or not, since I knew it had been written by a teenager. I actually liked the novel, despite the borrowed tropes (I mean, there’s a reason they’re tropes, right?) so can’t blame him for how bad that movie was. On a related note, why is Emmy, Golden Globe, and Oscar winner Jeremy Irons in so many terrible movies?

          Reply
          • Shara White July 19, 2017 at 11:44 am

            Did you end up reading the rest of the series?

        • Merrin July 19, 2017 at 11:47 am

          WordPress is so weird with it’s comment limits. Anyway, I read the second one, but by the time the third one came out it’d been a while since I read them and I wanted to reread before I read the third. I still haven’t because I kept pushing it to the backburner. I still mean to at some point.

          Reply
          • Shara White July 19, 2017 at 7:52 pm

            Yeah, the theme is weird like that. I’ve upped the comment thread count as high as it will go. At any rate, I’d be curious to see what you’d say about this overall trilogy (or is it a four-book series? I can’t remember) if you ever get around to it. Me, I’d like to see what Paolini comes up with as an adult author, you know?

  • Ron Edison July 18, 2017 at 11:49 am

    I read the first three but my enthusiasm waned with each volume. The tone definitely felt like something written in the era. I admired that but it did seem to affect pacing. As an editor, the profusion of semicolons was a massive irritation, something Novik inflicted on her readers as an homage to Jane Austen (whose punctuation has been mercifully edited to a modern standard by more enlightened editors). I ‘read’ the second and third via audiobook but kept having visions of semicolons floating around the dialogue.

    Reply
    • Merrin July 18, 2017 at 3:09 pm

      I had storyline problems with the second and third more than semicolons. I honestly didn’t notice those.

      Reply
  • Weasel of Doom July 19, 2017 at 7:10 pm

    I ended up DNF’ing the sixth book (to the point that I cannot even remember the title). Good to know that if I give it another try, I just need to suffer through books six and seven, and then things will get better 🙂

    Reply
    • Merrin July 31, 2017 at 11:56 am

      Yeah I mean, ymmv as to whether plowing through 6 and 7 are worth it, but I did like to finally have closure, personally.

      Reply
  • eawhitt July 27, 2017 at 2:20 pm

    I also started out very strong reading these as they came out, but for some reason was distracted after book five (maybe six came out the year we were renovating a house?) and haven’t followed through finishing the series. It’s very good to know that perhaps books six and seven should be audio books while I’m working on cleaning out my sewing loft, and that the finish of the series is worth the effort to get there. I’ll have to bump them up on my “to read” radar.

    Reply
    • Merrin July 31, 2017 at 11:55 am

      I listened to book six and can confirm that it’s one that’s easy to do that with. In fact, it’s best if you’re doing something else and just letting your lizard brain listen to that entire book.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: