“What’s the Big Deal?”: His Majesty’s Dragon Edition

It’s new feature time! Everyone throw confetti! Now cheer for me! Now dance! Dance, you delightfully shrewd book monkeys, dance!

I’m sorry I called you that. I can’t promise not to do it again.

The new feature shall be called “What’s the Big Deal?” and in it, I shall attempt to ascertain why some books are such a big deal. I’m not talking about classics, mind you. I’m not interested in plumbing Jane Austen’s depths (although 1. it wouldn’t take long since she usually splashes in the shallow end, and 2. that phrase can go on my book club’s Jane Austen Porn Film Titles list.)

I’m talking about books that are suddenly everywhere. Remember a few years ago when suddenly everyone and their grandmas were reading Eat Pray Love? Remember last year when everyone was reading The Help? Remember last week when everyone was reading The Hunger Games? Get used to that one, by the way, because there are still two movies to go. Don’t you just wonder, “What’s the big deal?” I do. I wonder what’s so appealing about these books. I wonder, “Is that book really an awesome read?” (Answers to that question for the aforementioned titles: Eat Pray Love, not really. The Help, no idea. The Hunger Games, ohdearLordYES.) The book isn’t always a going-to-film title, although all three examples I just gave did become motion pictures. Sometimes a book just seems to be making the rounds of all the book clubs like The Night Circus, or it’s at the top of the Goodreads lists like Divergent, or it’s just won an award like…some book that won an award; I’m drawing a _____ here. Sometimes it’s none of the above, but I just keep seeing and hearing about a book and thinking, “Should I read that?  It sounds like I’d like it…”

I choose many of my for-fun reads because I’m wondering “What’s the Big Deal?” Sometimes I finish the book and still have that question, and I’m looking at you, Delirium, when I say that. Sometimes I finish the book and say, “Wow. That book is a Big Deal!” This feature will chronicle my travels in Big Deal Land.

I’m going to begin with a book I’ve eyed for a few years: Naomi Novik’s His Majesty’s Dragon.

His Majesty's Dragon cover art His Majesty’s Dragon

by Naomi Novik

$7.99 mass market, ISBN-13 978-0345481283, Del Rey, Copyright 2006

Aerial combat brings a thrilling new dimension to the Napoleonic Wars as valiant warriors rise to Britain’s defense by taking to the skies . . . not aboard aircraft but atop the mighty backs of fighting dragons.

When HMS Reliant captures a French frigate and seizes its precious cargo, an unhatched dragon egg, fate sweeps Capt. Will Laurence from his seafaring life into an uncertain future–and an unexpected kinship with a most extraordinary creature. Thrust into the rarified world of the Aerial Corps as master of the dragon Temeraire, he will face a crash course in the daring tactics of airborne battle. For as France’s own dragon-borne forces rally to breach British soil in Bonaparte’s boldest gambit, Laurence and Temeraire must soar into their own baptism of fire.

How I heard about it: I shelved this book at Borders so many times, but I always assumed it was one of those semi-fantasy historical fiction novels that probably shouldn’t be in the genre area, like some of the historical fiction King Arthur novels that don’t feature any fantasy elements and yet get seated with T. H. White and Marion Zimmer Bradley. Finally I noticed that a GR friend had read it and rated it highly, and that it has a very high average rating and won a Locus as well as getting a nomination for a Hugo. The author is now several volumes into the series and seems to have a large fan base, so I wondered….

What’s the Big Deal?

This fantastic debut sets up a bold alternate version of British history in which the Napoleonic War is fought not only on land and by sea, but also in the air by each country’s corp of intelligent fighting dragons and their handlers.

Novik’s world-building is second to none. While comparisons to Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series are inevitable, the Temeraire series is really a different kettle of fish. Handlers and their dragons do share a deep kinship with each other, but there the similarities end. Novik develops dragons into several different breeds, each with its own unique size, coloring, and ability. Fire-breathing dragons are quite rare, for example, but several breeds spit acid or poison. Different nations breed for different qualities: the English, for example, breed for speed and agility, but often at the expense of brains. The Chinese dragons are considered the pinnacle of the species in nearly every way, but little specific knowledge of them exists outside the East until Temeraire, a very rare and special Chinese dragonlet, hatches aboard the ship of Captain William Laurence, who finds himself no longer a Navy man when the dragon becomes attached to him.

Since Laurence knows nothing about dragons or aviation whatsoever, Novik spares the reader a lot of dry expository writing by making Laurence and Temeraire’s training the central focus of the novel. The reader learns as they learn, and while a few of the subplots seem to exist purely to educate the reader on the habits and customs of dragons and their riders, somehow all of this setup is too much fun to feel like setup.

To me, while the battle scenes and draconic details were fun, much of the interest lay in watching Laurence’s character develop over the course of the novel. He goes from a stiff-upper-lip ship’s captain with little thought for more than his duty to England and a definite reluctance to be leg-shackled to a giant lizard, to a man unexpectedly in love with his new life and completely devoted to his reptilian companion.

BUT ALSO THE BATTLE SCENES ARE FUN. What’s more exciting than people sword-fighting on dragonback while the dragons slash at each other and spit acid farther than the length of a football field? Nothing, that’s what. And the dragons, with their single-mindedness and their lack of understanding of human law and custom (but why can’t I just eat those sheep over there? No one else is eating them right now), are delightful and developed characters all on their own, making the reader wish he or she had one to hang out with and fly around on. (I’ll put my prepositions wherever I like, thanks so much.)

Beyond the fact that this is just 100% escapist fun, I think the book’s greatest strength is the relationship between Laurence and Temeraire. They have different mindsets, different values; they aren’t even the same species, yet they value each other above the world and everything in it. Their bond speaks to the fundamental human desire to encounter someone or something Other and find love and understanding, to have a perfectly suited companion, to never worry that you will be lonely, that you will lack acceptance, that you will fail to measure up. It’s the ultimate fantasy, and Novik carries it off perfectly.

My only complaint is that I didn’t read this 6 years ago when it first came out! Now I’ve got my work cut out for me catching up with the series.

Verdict: It’s a Big Deal.

Brass relief of Asian dragon

Chinese dragons: suddenly so much cooler to me than the European variety.