The Beasts of War

(From A Collage By Max Ernst)
Reviewed by Rachel Hartigan Shea
Sunday, June 25, 2006


A Novel

By Naomi Novik

Del Rey. 356 pp. Paperback, $7.50

Is there anything more to say about dragons? Stalwart presences in myth and fantasy, they've hoarded gold, incinerated villages, been slain by countless heroes and (sing it with me) "frolicked in the autumn mist in a land called Honah Lee." After the enormous popularity of the teen wunderkind Christopher Paolini's "Inheritance" series, even the subgenre of dragon-as-noble-steed seems as if it should be played out. Certainly, no one needs any more fantastical medieval theme parks, full of dragons and swords and sorcerers all doing their bit to get the ring or crown the lost king or save the elf damsel or finish off whatever heroic quest their hack creator has set for them.

So all hail Naomi Novik for seizing on an entirely different set of literary conventions for her fantasy debut -- the dashing Brits-on-ships genre perfected by Patrick O'Brian. In His Majesty's Dragon , Novik plunks her scaly beasts into the Napoleonic Wars, as members of the Aerial Corps, air cover for the beleaguered Royal Navy as it fends off a French invasion.

The novel begins when the H.M.S. Reliant captures a French ship carrying a dragon egg that is primed to hatch. A substantial prize, it puts Laurence -- the Reliant's captain -- and his officers -- gentlemen and aspiring gentlemen -- in a difficult position: One of them must become the creature's rider when it hatches. The prize then would become a deadweight, bringing to an end "any semblance of ordinary life. . . . An aviator could not easily manage any sort of estate, nor raise a family, nor go into society to any real extent." For the one chosen by the hatchling (and a dragon won't let just anyone harness him), it would mean "the wreck of his career." Naturally, it is the heroic Capt. Laurence whom the dragon picks.

And who is this dragon? "A pure, untinted black from nose to tail . . . [with] large, six-spined wings like a lady's fan," he is a Celestial, a Chinese dragon bred for emperors alone. Laurence names him Temeraire, and it's Novik's characterization of the dragon, who speaks in perfect 19th-century English, that makes the book hum. No ancient wisdom for him, just a voracious intelligence that demands bedtime readings on such subjects as mineralogy (dragons do like gems, you know) and historic battles.

Novik gets Temeraire's tone just right: slightly petulant when he doesn't get his way but innocently curious and eager to please. Laurence's relationship to him is like that of a parent with a child, a bemused parent with an enormous, precocious child. Soon they are heading north to Scotland to be inducted into the "wild, outrageous libertinage" of the Air Corps, where traditional social classes break down. Indeed, one of Laurence's greatest shocks is that women also fight with the Corps, unavoidable when some dragon breeds will only accept female riders. This makes life interesting for Laurence, who had to break off an unofficial engagement to a well-born woman when Temeraire chose him.

In Loch Laggan, Laurence and Temeraire also discover that battle on dragonback is much like that aboard ship -- a crew of about a dozen straps on to the dragon, armed with guns and swords and grappling hooks for boarding enemy beasts. (And it is here that Novik channels O'Brian most faithfully: No matter how brutal the fighting, commands are always concluded with an "if you please, Mr. Such-and-so.")

Inevitably, Laurence and Temeraire get a chance to test their mettle in battle; Napoleon has a diabolical plan that must be thwarted. I won't spoil the ending, but Temeraire and Laurence acquit themselves well, as does Novik in the gripping combat scenes. Here's hoping that the next two books in the series -- the just published Throne of Jade and Black Powder War -- contain the same generous dollop of intelligent derring-do as this first, most original of dragon books. ?

Rachel Hartigan Shea is a contributing editor of Book World.

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