You’ve probably heard about this series. Perhaps you read it. It’s been around for a while; the first book was published back in 2006, the final instalment ten years later. At one point Peter Jackson had obtained the movie rights from the author. Regretfully, he changed his mind and went ahead and made The Hobbit trilogy.
I know why I ignored it all those years ago–it was categorized as science fiction, a genre I almost never read, and the blurb mentioned an alternative history focused on the Napoleonic wars, not a period I’m particularly drawn to.
I don’t know why I decided to finally give His Majesty’s Dragon, the first book in Naomi Novik’s fabulous Temeraire series, a try. It was the end of August, I was having a sale of my paintings in front of my house. It was still early for potential customers, it was a sunny but very smoky morning, so I grabbed the first book from a pile of boxes (where we’d been keeping them for the last year or so due to endless house renovations) and started reading. Years ago, I’d bought it in a second hand book store, and never touched it since then.
There is something magical in the moment when you realize you’re falling in love with a book–it’s not unlike falling in love with a person. And as with a person, it can happen for many reasons–because of the book’s deeper meaning, because it’s beautifully written, because you like the atmosphere, or more often, the characters. This time it was a combination of several factors–once I decided to go out of my reading comfort zone, I saw the huge potential in the story premise, which felt more authentic than I expected. Novik’s writing is beautiful, with seemingly excessive use of colons, semicolons and long sentences, which only gave her style so much rhythm and substance, evoking the time period without making reading dense and laborious. I’m thankful that she hadn’t sent her story to one of those numerous editors and other writing professionals who ‘expertly’ advise us to never use semicolons in fiction.
Mostly, however, it was one of the two protagonists that did the job.
I’ve experienced many literary crushes, but never before had I loved a non-human character so much as I loved Temeraire. I remembered my then six-year-old son after watching How to Train Your Dragon, and his words, full of longing, “I wish I could have a dragon.” That’s how I’ve been feeling since Book 1.
Six weeks and eight sequels later, after reading one book after another, on the bus, on my breaks, before sleep, I was on the last chapter of the story–League of Dragons–experiencing the strong symptoms of withdrawal. And like many times before, I wished I could erase my reading memory and start from the beginning.
What’s so wonderful about this dragon? The list is long: his personality, his humanity or perhaps “dragonity”, his intelligence, his loyalty, his courage–he’s a combat dragon, of course–his joys, his small vices and imperfections, his devotion to his dragon brethren, his crew and most of all, his captain, William Laurence, a former Navy officer who found himself bound to a little black dragonet and had to move to the less glamorous Arial Forces. His sense of humour, his pure heart, his heartbreaking naivety, his sometimes deep some other times black and white perceptions, his love for poetry, philosophy and mathematics, his endless fascination with precious metal gem stones, pearls and shiny objects in general.
It’s evident that the author did thorough research of the Napoleonic era. She captured the complex and multilayered character of Napoleon Bonaparte, the man whose ideas were as magnificent as the terrific price of their implementing was. Using wide brush strokes that still reveal many accurate details, she was able to paint not only the physical world but also the flavour of the times and the essence of the mentality of different nations, following her unforgettable heroes from England to China, from China to the south of Africa, from there to the Ottoman Empire and to Prussia, then to France, Australia, Imperial Russia, and back to England. I would bet my best pair of shoes that she’s a great admirer of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Her portrait of the commander-in-chief of the Russian Army, Prince Mikhail Kutuzov, the man who defeated Napoleon, was influenced, in the best way, by one of Russia’s greatest literary giants.
A less talented writer would’ve thrown in a bit of romance, not that there was a lack of opportunity, but Novik has chosen to spin us a love story–or better– a story of love, friendship and loyalty between a man and a dragon, that transform them both into amazing beings.
After all, if Stephen King says His Majesty’s Dragon is “terrifically entertaining,” we should trust him.
I’m now reading one of her standalone novels, Spinning Silver, a story that digs deep into the richness of Slavic fairy tales and folklore and weaves a story that enchants you from the very first page.