His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I added this book to my Goodreads To Read list in 2014. The reasons for doing so are lost to time and slightly baffling. I don’t believe I had any previous experience with Ms. Naomi Novik. I’m not a big fantasy person (I’m certainly much more of one thanks to Sanderson than I was in 2014). That leaves 3 possibilities: a recommendation from someone whose opinions I admire, a fondness for historical fiction, and/or my love of counter-factual history. Either way, five years later it had big expectations to fill. AND IT SUCCEEDED. I’m kind of mad at myself for not getting to this earlier.
This book posits a world where Earth has always had dragons and, now, at the time of Napolean they’re being used in warfare. This has the effect of pushing aerial warfare forward from World War One to The Napoleonic Wars. Although this book is much more about a personal journey than warfare (there isn’t really any dragon combat until the last 30ish percent of the book) the idea really fascinates me. Understanding how much planes changed combat in WWI and WWII makes this fun to think about.
I think the smartest thing Ms. Novik did – the thing that made me love this book – is that she made her dragons intelligent. They are not akin to Ghengis Khan using horseback combat or Hannibal of Carthage using elephants. The dragons are sapients with feelings and intelligence and able to contribute to how well the battle goes based on how they react. They can panic just as men can panic at war, but this means even if their captain is incapacitated they can still make the right choices rather than just running away.
Second thing I loved about this novel was the way Ms. Novik creates a novel that contains complex characters. With one potential exception, all of the characters are complex characters rather than simply good or bad. I think this really came home for me with our protagonist’s father. Because we’re mostly in Laurence’s head (although this is third person novel, we mostly understand things from his perspective) we’re setup to see him as a monster, but he turns out to be a completely reasonable and rational person given the society that Ms. Novik sets up.
Speaking of which, it’s an interesting military hierarchy that she sets up in this first novel. While the Navy is not necessarily something for respectable young men, it’s certainly better than the [dragon] air force. I wonder if Ms. Novik simply created this to create tension in the book or because when airplanes did show up, there was a hierarchy.
Outside of that, it was fun to live in the Napoleonic age for a few weeks. Although I had to make use of the Kindle’s dictionary quite a bit. This book is part of the trope (probably based in fact) that people back then (at least people of the protagonist’s class) used bigger words. So while I was always able to guess from context, sometimes looking up the word brought to bare some extra connotations.
Finally, I loved the epilogue twist that sets things up quite nicely for the next book. I also enjoyed the excerpts from an in-universe encyclopedia of dragons. I’m definitely in for book 2 and as long as they’re all this good – I’m in for all 9.
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