Naomi Novik stole my heart away with Uprooted. It was one of my first ever reviews on this site. Her writing was evocative and fresh and kept me hooked from chapter to chapter. Reading her book was like being welcomed into a new universe by an old friend and I had to stay to hear all her stories because I LOVE her stories!
When I began reading His Majesty’s Dragon, I gave an inward sigh because the writing style and language was reminiscent of very stilted and suffocating movies like Master and Commander. The height of propriety, every word has a place, every statement is backed by deep consideration for tradition and expectations, and everyone’s station is life is set. Think honor and duty above all else.
Imagine my surprise when I sank into this language and writing like I was being cuddled by the most comfortable chair, covered in blankets, with a hot beverage, watching the snow fall softly outside as my best friend told me the story of his old war days riding on a dragon against Napoleon. It was a story I didn’t realize I wanted to hear that I couldn’t get enough of as I moved through the chapters falling in love with character after character. Angels, I cried openly during one particular part because by the time I reached that point in the narrative everyone involved was someone I loved and I could not stand to see them hurt or in pain.
An English naval vessel captures a dragon egg from a French ship, and when it hatches before they can reach land Laurence, the English captain, moves forward to harness the dragon to ensure that it flies for England. His deep sense of duty drives him to act for the good of his country, but out of this action grows one of the deepest friendships and loves that I have read about in a very long time. He names the dragon Temeraire and they plan to enter the aerial Corps once the ship makes land.
Now the traditional military branches view the Corps as ‘lesser than’. It’s seen as a rougher life. People who enter the Corps traditionally don’t marry, they aren’t involved in the typical English social circles or ladders anymore. Their only duty is for England, the Corps, and the dragon to whom they are bound from the hatching. This kind of isolation gives most people the vapors, and Laurence, having been fed a steady diet of this misinformation, enters this new world with some nervousness. He soon discovers that the people who are involved with the Corps are just as smart, honorable, and duty bound as any other part of society that he has experienced thus far.
Temeraire is a very different dragon from those typically used in the Corps. Laurence speaks with dragon scholars and they believe him to be an Imperial breed from mainland China, sent as a gift to Napoleon but intercepted by England. Temeraire is disappointed because he cannot breathe fire or spit acid like some of the other dragons, and you get to watch him grow and eat and develop throughout the book to finally reach his full growth and abilities to reveal an identity even bigger than they initially thought. He loves for Laurence to read to him, and he knows both English and French, having heard them both spoken while he was still in the egg. In this book dragons speak with humans and it is so entertaining to see them as equal participants in the process instead of simply being beasts of burden.
Novik asks us to consider relationships in this first book of the series. Abusive relationships, especially ones that you cannot escape. What is kindness in the face of such inescapable bonds? How do we balance duty to our country and duty to each other? When is love the greatest duty that we hold? What is consent? YES CONSENT.
Honestly the most comforting aspect of this novel, and what creates the most tension, are the moments where the riders consider their dragons as equal partners and ask their input before doing things and when they do not. For example, Laurence insists on removing Temeraire’s harness at the end of exercise and washes his dragon after he eats and trains because Temeraire asks for it. Because it makes Temeraire comfortable. And what’s really excellent is that these simple acts of consideration and kindness spread to the other dragons, creating a community of deeper companionship among the members of the Corps. The lengths to which people consider the needs and comfort of others in this novel, both people and dragons alike, will renew your hope that such a society might be possible in our dragonless world.
Naomi Novik has written a novel in the traditionally formal style of an old naval story that will capture your imagination and your heart, making you wish for your own dragon as a partner. Please go read this book. You will be better for having read it and I would not lead you wrong. Go get you some.