His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik (2006)
I bought this book on a whim, and I blame Peter Jackson, the guy who directed The Lord of the Rings films. See, last year it was announced that he had acquired the rights to the film adaptations of the Temeraire series of books by Naomi Novik, the first of which is His Majesty's Dragon. When the guy who made some of the best and most spectacular films in recent memory picks source material for his future films, I pay attention. I saw this while scanning the shelves of a bookshop and bought it on impulse. After all, who can say no to the heartwarming tale of a man and his dragon? (I'm in bad pun mode these days) Sadly, the first in the Temeraire series doesn't come even remotely close to Tolkien's classic, doorstop sized tome.
His Majesty's Dragon is set during the Napoleonic Wars, towards the end of the 18th Century. Only, it's the 18th Century Jim, but not as we know it. It's an alternate history where dragons exist, and are used in combat like aerial warships, complete with full blown crews. Captain Will Laurence, commander of a British Naval warship, takes a French ship as a prize. On board the ship is a dragon egg that's about to hatch. Unfortunately for Laurence, a dragon must be 'harnessed' and assigned an aviator as soon as it hatches, otherwise it ends up becoming feral. Being too far out from a friendly port to hand over the egg to the Aerial Corps before it hatches, Laurence ends up becoming the dragon's aviator. Dragons are born with the ability to speak - they learn through the shell - and when the hatchling asks what his name is, Laurence christens him Temeraire. An aviator is assigned to a dragon for life, so Laurence effectively gives up his promising naval career and all hope of a normal life in the name of duty; the British Aerial Corps is desperate for more dragons in the face of Bonaparte's superior forces. The secretive Corps is generally ostracized, and Laurence's new position puts him in a quagmire, as he becomes an outcast in his own society and the Corps, who are resentful towards him. What follows is the story of how Laurence and Temeraire (who turns out to be a rare and exotic breed of dragon that is more intelligent than most) bond as friends, train to become full blown members of the Aerial Corps, and do their utmost in the name of their country.
I quite like the premise of the book, and the story is a fair introduction into this faux history featuring dragons, aviators, and aerial combat. The best things in the book are the allusions to the war and how they relate to and deviate from real history, the workings of the Aerial Corps and how it integrates into 18th century society, and finally aerial dragon combat. When the book jumps into dragon battle mode, it's fairly engaging. Unfortunately, everything else is weak. The characters are two dimensional and clichéd - Laurence is noble, dignified, brave, and an all round incredible officer who cares deeply for his dragon, and gets all righteous at even the slightest criticism. Every other character has even less depth and complexity than him, and every conversation is stiff and formal and wooden. This manner of speech may be historically accurate, but that doesn't excuse the fact that virtually every conversation feels decidedly inhuman. Ironically, the most human character is Temeraire, who actually has a wee bit of depth. The downside is that he and all the other dragons behave like infants. They're needy, spend a lot of time sleeping, drool food all over themselves and need constant cleaning, and interact with each other with all the maturity of toddlers. While I suppose this is just as valid an interpretation as any other, I found it really... well, lame. I like my dragons as vicious beasts or wise and condescending bastards, not prima donnas. Also, the lovey-dovey stuff between Laurence and Temeraire is just... ugh... with 'my dear' this and 'my dear' that, you sometimes wish they'd get a room.
The story also has many repetitive beats. Laurence has trouble fitting in, and must act stoic and gentlemanly while earning someone's respect. Laurence has to console and take care of Temeraire, who regularly has mood swings. Laurence and Temeraire train hard, impress everyone, and prove themselves. Much of this stuff feels clumsy and simplistic. Even the big twist and the surprise during the final battle are telegraphed a mile away. There's also a lack of atmosphere and sense of place, with very little in the way of description. I think a lot of my understanding of the milieu of the book came from what I already knew, and not really from the book itself.
His Majesty's Dragon isn't an awful book; far from it. I can imagine liking this as a teenager, but right now I'm a little more discerning, and mediocre just doesn't cut it. It's an interesting premise and a fair introductory story to a series, but it's not particularly well executed. There's some cool stuff, and a few exciting moments. I can see a lot of scope for a cinematic adaptation, especially the aerial combat, but the characters will have to be given more depth - even the more minor characters in Lord of the Rings had more to them than the major ones in this. Jackson is a guy who brings verisimilitude and character to his spectacular films, so as long as it isn't overlong like King Kong, I'd be interested in watching the rest of the series as films even though I won't be reading them.