Saturday, April 28, 2007

Book Review: His Majesty's Dragon, Throne of Jade, & Black Powder War

For once, Steve could justly mock me for reading books with dragons on the cover. I blew through all three of these novels in short order; they are the literary equivalent of potato chips in that once you have a taste, you have to finish the entire bag. They are also like chips in that they are not "good for you." I don't feel like I've learned anything about history or the human experience from these books. Nevertheless, they are quite fun.

The premise is summed up well here:
"Aerial dragons fighting with British ships in the Napoleonic Wars! ...[T]hat woman is sitting on a limitless heap of gold which she can shovel out just as fast as she can write!"
Essentially, this is alternate-history fantasy: it assumes that most world events have played out roughly as in our world and adds the historical presence of dragons (and thus pre-1900s air power). Novik's dragons speak in human tongues from birth (they "learn in the shell," which is a little too convenient), bond to a handler immediately after hatching, and are large and strong enough to carry crews numbering between a few and a few dozen. A few breeds have scary powers, like fire-breathing or acid-spitting, but most rely on claws and the rifle squads they bear to wreak havoc in battle.

The setting is the Napoleonic Wars, and the British dragon corps, a clannish and secretive group that keeps to its own codes of behavior (much to the dismay of our more conventional protagonist), must defend the isles from invasion while Nelson pits the fleet against the French. We are introduced to the corps through its newest member, Will Laurence, a former naval captain who captures a French ship carrying a valuable dragon egg to Napoleon and who inadvertently bonds with the dragonet when it hatches before they reach shore. This bonding, which violates the corps' strict rules, produces much consternation in Laurence himself (his naval career is abruptly ended and marriage to his childhood sweetheart is no longer an option), the navy, and the corps. The need to quickly train Laurence to combat standards allows Novik to drop in a hefty infodump without losing the thread of the story.

The book does a good job of convincing us that such a reluctant dragonrider could grow to love both his new companion and his new career. Part of this is due to the extremely winning personality displayed by Laurence's dragon, Temeraire, who is different from other dragons. The plotting is a tad predictable (a twist and a betrayal are both easily seen coming, but the details of both are well done) and there are certain occurences that seem inconsistent with prior characterization or exposition (Laurence's sexual mores change rather abruptly, and Hollin's good fortune at the end seems at odds with what we were told of the rigorous order of precedence), but overall the book is worthwhile for someone open to light, fun fantasy that smacks a bit of Horatio Hornblower crossed with Anne McCaffrey.

The second and third books follow Laurence and Temeraire on their travels to China (Temeraire's ancestral home) and back again via Turkey. Although it is interesting to see how different countries interact with their dragons and how Temeraire's burgeoning liberalism prods his conservative rider into reconsidering English society, the road-movie nature of these books can get stale. Throne of Jade takes place almost entirely on board a ship, and the narrative is held hostage for chapters and chapters as they make their way to China; shipboard intrigue can only hold my attention so far. Black Powder War treks across Asia, but it lacks the rollicking nature of a picaresque despite some superficial similarities and glosses over some interesting philosophical points on the ownership of dragon eggs, the advantages of dragon-human bonding compared with unbonded feral dragons, and whether adherence to gentlemanly codes of conduct, if it results in thousands of innocent deaths, is really a good thing. Scalzi often explores these types of issues as they arise in the narrative; Novik rushes past to get us further along in the story. (Maybe that's just the difference between a philosophy major and a former fan fiction writer.)

Novik's roots in fan fiction serve her well in that the books are mostly plot, and this keeps them tight (they are quite short, comparable to a Hornblower novel). However, the failure to meander or engage in much world-building for world-building's sake means that the true nature of any "mysterious" personages is fairly plain; each character is like Chekov's gun and it's not hard to figure out where they'll be aimed. Also, it's obvious that our heroes will not be killed or separated, which takes away some of the suspense. But these are page-turners first and foremost, and on that axis they are an unqualified success.

Novik is churning out more books as we speak, and Peter Jackson has optioned the books to boot, so the heap-of-gold prophesy is likely to come true. Despite my qualms about another road-book (Temeraire in Africa!), I'll be elbowing my way through the library to get the next novel. Recommended.
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