Once upon a time, in the land of traditional Western storytellers, where ancient archetypes roamed unchanged for millennia, dragons stood for a certain set of inalienable values. Evil, cunning, armored, avaricious, virgin-defiling, they represented “the ultimate antagonist which a hero faces at the culmination of his career,” according to critic Roz Kaveney in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. One would no more imagine taming a dragon, or bonding with one, than one would envision setting up housekeeping with Medusa.
We’ve come a long way since Beowulf. In the twentieth century, a strain in children’s and YA literature offered the humorously conceived cozy dragon, a sometimes bumbling friend and guardian figure. Starting as early as Kenneth Grahame’s The Reluctant Dragon, the mode reached some kind of midlife apex with Disney’s film, Pete’s Dragon.
But the character transformation of the dragon in adult fantastical literature surely derives from Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonrider series, begun in 1967. McCaffrey’s intelligent beasts were actually aliens from the planet Pern, and hence removed from the confining strictures of legend and fable. They could be portrayed freshly as amiable and intelligent partners to humans. Around this same period, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea dragons, long-lived and conversant in the primal and potent Language of the Making, inhabited a niche akin to that of revered Taoist sages, but such a presentation proved less generative of imitators.
Since McCaffrey’s groundbreaking transvaluation, dragons in fantasy and science fiction have ridden a teeter-totter between evil and benign. For every George R. R. Martin and Lucius Shepard, we get a Margaret Weis and Cressida Cowell. At their most cloying, the cozy dragons seem merely analogues to (talking, smart) horses, catering—or should that be “cantering?”—to clichéd conceptions of ponies marketed to children.
Somewhere at the fulcrum of this teeter-totter exist the books of Naomi Novik, in which dragons assume a purely naturalistic role, neither inherently moral nor immoral, and certainly not occult. In a way, Novik is concerned with the technic of dragons, examining how the beasts function as an instrumentality of human ingenuity, namely in the pursuit of war. And, like McCaffrey, she endows her dragons with full human-quality sentience, and—there’s no way around it—the capability to form attachments of friendship and even platonic romance with their human “Captains.”
Novik’s best-selling series—whose eighth installment, Blood of Tyrants, is newly released this month—began with His Majesty’s Dragon in 2006. (The frequent clockwork appearance of new volumes is testament to Novik’s talent and dedication, and is marked by no diminution of quality.) With grace and economy—and some shorthand borrowings from consensus history—she sets her scene instantly: the era of the Napoleonic Wars, with our point-of-view squarely set on British shoulders. Namely, those of sturdy and brave young naval Captain named Will Laurence. For a few pages we think we are inhabiting a familiar Patrick O’Brian novel. Then, in the hold of a captured French ship, Laurence discovers a dragon’s egg of a rare sort.
A moment’s detour here. The backstory to Novik’s parallel Earth turns out to be that dragons have been coeval with man forever, domesticated in all lands throughout human existence. Now, the science of writing alternate histories generally holds that the farther back a point of divergence is, the greater the changes that will radiate down the line. Strictly speaking, Novik’s assertion that a world full of long-existing dragons will still produce Napoleon and all his contemporaries in the nineteenth century of a basically unchanged continuum is a big illogical counterfactual pill to swallow. But it’s plain that she chose this approach because of the sheer storytelling potential involved. Familiarity of culture allied with one alluring inserted novum. “A touch of strange,” to use Theodore Sturgeon’s formulation. And since the conceit ends up working so well, most readers will gladly accept its unlikeliness.
Back to Captain Will Laurence. The dragon egg is taken onboard his ship as booty. It hatches while they are still far from port, and the odd black male dragon that emerges is instantly and forever bonded with Laurence, who names it Temeraire. Now Laurence’s naval career is necessarily over, and he’s a fledgling member of the Aerial Corps of dragonriders.
The rest of the book is a pleasing mix of flight academy protocol; growing understanding, love and sense of mutual interests between man and dragon; social tragicomedy (Laurence’s alienation from his family; a love affair with Jane Roland); and, of course, politics and warfare, in which Laurence and Temeraire earn their spurs, so to speak. Told with colorful, restrained, yet vivid language, Novik’s tale is a delight, full of sharp characterizations, humor, suspense, plot twists and meticulously conceived dragon lore and technology. Of course, the depiction of Temeraire, with his truly alien mind, stands high on the list of attractions. No wonder this debut novel made it to the Hugo Award ballot.
Throne of Jade takes up the tale of Temeraire and Laurence with an immediacy that betokened the fact that Novik was embarked on one long narrative arc, with novel-ending mini-climaxes along the path. She revealed that Temeraire’s Chinese origin involved the beast in dynastic squabbles back in his land of origin. A harsh emissary, Prince Yongxing, demands the return of Temeraire to China, and off he and Laurence go, with some other Brits. There, Machiavellian intrigue besets the visitors (not impeding Temeraire’s first love affair with a fellow dragon), but all works out fine.
At the start of Black Powder War, Laurence and company are impelled to return home, but lack ocean passage. They undertake the classic Marco Polo route back to Europe, allowing Novik to expand her portrait of this alternate globe. Arriving at the siege of Danzig, Laurence and Temeraire and some fledgling Turkish dragons offer relief. A whiff of appealing Flashman-like roguishness inheres in a new character, Tharkay, a native guide and friend to Laurence.
A compelling H. Rider Haggard atmosphere imbues Empire of Ivory with an exotic flavor. Safely home in the UK, Laurence and Temeraire discover that England’s dragons are all dying of draconian flu. Off to Africa in search of a cure they go, encountering an odd hybrid tribe where humans and dragons coexist in a strange manner. Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Opar never did it better. Layered in is a subplot about the morality of the slave trade, with telling comparisons made to the role of dragons, who are manumitted in China, but not elsewhere. This volume ends with an act of high-minded “treachery” by Laurence. To counter British bio-warfare against the dragons of France, he brings the draconian flu cure to the enemy. A face-to-face meeting with Napoleon cannot dissuade Laurence from returning to England to manfully face the consequences of his actions.
With Laurence imprisoned as a traitor when Victory of Eagles opens, Novik for the first time splits her narration between Captain and steed, giving us a neat picture of dragon society and conversation when humans aren’t around. It should be remarked at this juncture that unlike many static genre series which either return to the status quo after each installment or unmercifully pad the storyline, Novik’s books maintain a heady and steady progression. They also find her protagonists developing in consistent yet startling new ways, such as Temeraire’s growing into his “stud” duty and his insistent arrogation of paid officer status to himself and his fellow dragons. Certainly the major plot leap here is Napoleon’s land invasion of the United Kingdom—a major uchronic riff in its own right–and that campaign provides many stirring battle passages. At the end, thanks in no small part to a reunited Laurence and Temeraire, Napoleon’s forces are defeated abroad, but still triumphant at home.
Just when the reader might begin to imagine that Novik has played all her cards, she conceives of a great maneuver to legitimately expand the story’s range in Tongues of Serpents. Despite his heroism, at the end of battle Laurence is still condemned for his prior “treason.” The modified solution? Criminal transportation to Australia. Of course, Temeraire—seen as something of an undesirable pro-dragon rabble-rouser—must go too. Some of Laurence’s pals come along as well: Tharkay, and a sidekick (important from the get-go yet whom I’ve failed to mention till now), John Granby and his dragon Iskierka. Down Under, the cast encounter rebellions, smugglers, and vast privations on a cross-continental expedition. Two engaging new dragons—Caesar and Kulingile—are introduced. The latter’s lusty appetite provides a running gag. Indeed, all the dragons are as much concerned with food as hobbits are, and Novik’s attention to the utilitarian side of maintaining these enormous beasts is ever on display.
When we encounter Laurence in Crucible of Gold, still in Aussie retirement, his weathered, somewhat aged appearance and reclusive demeanor make us jump, as we recall the fresh faced youth of His Majesty’s Dragon. Deaths and disfigurements among the rest of the cast contribute to the sense of loss. It’s a frisson richly earned by Novik only after so much deft storytelling. Novik also ramps up counterfactually in this installment, giving us an Incan Empire unconquered by Europeans, where we get a Kiplingesque episode reminiscent of The Man Who Would Be King.
Blood of Tyrants announces itself to be the penultimate book in the saga — whose architectural shape is now becoming clear– spanning eight years of Will Laurence’s life so far. And it opens unlike any of the previous books, with a major discontinuity in the narrative’s resumption from Crucible.
Last seen in Brazil ready to board the Potentate for a government mission to China, Laurence is suddenly revealed at the opening of the new book as a hapless castaway in Japan, partially amnesiac. We soon discover, shifting to Temeraire’s nearby coastal situation, that the Potentate has foundered upon the rocks of that cloistered nation, with Laurence gone overboard. Laurence falls in with the locals, acquiring a new companion in a young man named Junichiro, while a despairing Temeraire and company, recovering, sail to Nagasaki, the one port officially open to Westerners. At the same time, we gain secondhand knowledge of developments back in Europe, where Napoleon’s star continues to rise. And quite refreshingly, that major blank spot on Novik’s map, the USA, gets fleshed out thanks to a meeting with a Yankee dragon named Wamponoag.
When dragon and man are reunited after much adventuring, the mission to China resumes forward motion, though Laurence’s memory loss casts an uneasy ambiance over the human-draconian ensemble. In China, Laurence is disturbed to learn of the British involvement in the hated opium trade. Surely Novik is indulging in some wry parallels with our own era when she has one British character say, “‘There is scarcely any market here in China for most of our goods, and enormous markets for their goods in the West: the deficit was quite unmanageable, until opium was introduced.'” But this matter must go onto the back burner when news reaches Laurence & Co. that Napoleon’s army is heading towards Moscow. Only reinforcements from China—some 300 dragons and crews—racing overland can help.
Novik wisely elides that long overland trip—which would in large part have duplicated the similar trip in Throne of Jade—and kicks precipitously off with Temeraire and Laurence already in Russia, getting ready for battle. She is at her rousing martial best in this section—yet not neglecting smaller-scale personal matters—and the book concludes with the portentous line “Winter had come.” Thus are we prepared for the end game of Napolean’s quest, which has bracketed and permeated and defined the whole arc of Laurence’s career.
Even at this late stage, Novik continues to do new things. We meet Japanese River Dragons and Russian ones as well, these latter exhibiting the classic treasure-hoarding behavior. Alternate-history eyekicks continue to come our way. Married to the Incan Empress, Napoleon has produced an heir: “The new Roi de Cusco, as he had been styled, was by now four months old and reportedly thriving: he had been christened Napoleon Joseph Pachacuti Yupanqui…” And we get an outsider’s summary view of Laurence and Temeraire after all their seasoning, an estimation that drives home the magnitude of their exploits: “‘If the world has not heard of you after your adventure at Gdansk…or after the plague, we should certainly have heard of you after Brazil. Where you go, you leave half the world upturned behind you. You are more dangerous than Bonaparte in your own way, you and that beast of yours.'”
But really in a series like this, what counts is continued delivery of the established pleasures, and there is plenty of that. The delicious politesse of the period, the boarding school stiff-upper-lip sangfroid, has always been a draw of these books, and it continues. Here is how Laurence consoles Temeraire when the latter is half-buried under an avalanche and in danger of suffocating:
“‘I hope you know that I do not hold you responsible for my own actions—where I have allowed myself to be persuaded, the decision must in the end have been my own. And where apologies between us may have been merited, in the past, and there made, I hope you do not imagine me so unreasonable as to expect you to repeat them.'”
The major accomplishment of these books—beside of course all the sheer entertainment value they deliver, due to a bumper crop of classic adventures—lies in the way Novik has managed to integrate humans and dragons of a distinctively palpable and corporeal sort into a hybrid society, much along the same lines as that type of science fiction which depicts merged alien-human communities. While retaining their own species-specific beliefs and behaviors on the same moral and intellectual plane as humans, her dragons have blended with and accommodated themselves to their partners—and vice versa—in a true marriage of equals. Laurence and Temeraire, addressing each other continually as “dear,” hold out hope for a world where empathy trumps difference.