Thursday, October 21, 2010

Who needs airplanes when the air force can ride dragons?

Alternate history stories can go one of two ways. In the first, the author is so concerned with the history that the story itself gets lost in the mix. In these, how history diverges and interplays with how history really took place is what the reader is looking for, and plotting and characterization oftentimes gets overlooked.

The other type of alternate history lets the history play as a backdrop to a character driven story. Unless the reader is an avid fan of the intricacies of history, generally this is the much more enjoyable of the two. In either type of story, the divergence point can be as small as a general taking sick, or as grand as an earthquake taking out an entire army.

Or the addition of dragons as an instrument of war.

Welcome to Naomi Novik's world of Temeraire, starting with His Majesty’s Dragon. Dragons exist, and as clever as humans. While there are still groups of wild dragons, especially in the Black Forest, many have been semi-domesticated, and are used by Europe as a sort of airborne cavalry. They’re large enough that they’re manned almost as an airship would, with a crew hanging off carabiners from the dragon’s harness.

When Captain Laurence of the British Navy captured a French ship, one of the prizes they took was a dragon egg bound for Napoleon himself. A dragonet generally becomes attached to the first person it sees after coming out of the shell, but this one passed up his intended handler and chose Laurence instead.

This rather disrupted his rather distinguished career as a Navy man, and immediately drafted him as an aviator. He gave up his ship; his future wife; and, after his father found out and disowned him, his family as well.

But with everything he’s lost, he’s gained an amazing friend. He named his dragon Temeraire, and a more loyal friend or family member he’ll never find. As Temeraire grows up, he becomesat least as intelligent as the rest of the characters in the book, and loves to be read to in both English and French, as dragons learn languages while in the shell.

We get to explore the world through the eyes of Lawrence, and are told about customs and such as he tells Temeraire. Dragons and their aviators are generally trained in Ireland, and we get to see the many ways that captains treat their dragons there, as well as later in battle.

The book feels much shorter than it actually is, because it’s such a fast, adventure story. Even when the story is being moved along mainly by dialog rather than action, I never felt the urge to flip pages until the fighting started again. It’s a great action book with little thought needed, and sometimes all a person wants is a little bit of dragon escapism.

Highs: Quick paced, great personalities among the dragons

Lows: If you want high literature, you’ll be sadly disappointed

Verdict: Great fun, and a fast read

Further Reading: Throne of Jade, Stardust

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