Book Review: Temeraire by Naomi Novik

The hook for Temeraire is inspired– dragons and their captains set across the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars (think Patrick O’Brian crossed with Anne McCafferty). It was this combined with the stunning cover that made me pick up this novel.

Digression: I used to work in the editorial department of a Big Publishing Company so I know how much influence authors have over cover design (very, very little). That said I think the cover fitted the subject matter perfectly. I love the calligraphy of the title and the striking embossed black illustration that flows around the title and author name. All in all it was beautiful so big gold star to all involved.

Captain Will Laurence captures a French ship and as part of the bounty gains a rare dragon’s egg. The war with France is not going well, but that dragon if properly trained could provide the vital strategic advantage that England is looking for. When the dragon hatches whilst on board on the ship it imprints itself on Laurence, destroying his beautiful future in the navy, and condemning him to a live as an aviator.

I really enjoyed this book. The authorial voice is confident blending it with contemporary literature of the period. Its full of little historical details which give you confidence that Novik know her period back to front (for example the aviator boys putting kohl beneath their eyes to protect them from the glare of the sun). I really liked the descriptions as dragons as sentient beings. In particular some of the more childish aspects of Temeraire and Laurence’s relationship where hilarious, they bickered like an old married couple (Temeraire ‘s jealously of Laurence cleaning other dragons, and their discussion as to the ‘attractions’ of Dover)

Novik skillfully weaved women into the narrative without being anachronistic and compromising the reality of the historical period. All in all the the world building was excellent introducing the dragon mad aviators with their crumpled clothing and secretive training schemes (dragons as head trainers – oh yes). I also loved the whole notion of the dragons breeding the aviators to beget a new generation of dragons. Very funny. As well as the different breeds of dragons each with their own particular strengths and weaknesses. There were also a couple of moments with a certain dragon being mistreated that was so heartwrenching sad I couldn’t bear it.

However there were a couple of elements that jarred for me. Novik takes great pains to tell us how Temeraire’s imprinting on Laurence disrupts his life: his career in the navy, his relationships was his family and his fiancée . But I felt there was a bit of telling as opposed to showing. Almost immediately Laurence develops a relationship with Temeraire. He shows very little resentment or disappointment. I didn’t feel that the character went on the emotional journey I wanted or expected (ie longing for the life he left behind and gradually realising how exciting and fulfilling his new world was). All in all the new world he’s entering into is too good, too exciting for him to feel much regret about what he is leaving behind.

Tied up in this was that Laurence and Temeraire were just too perfect. The characters that haunt me (Elizabeth Bennett, Heathcliff, Alanna), are difficult, flawed people. They are interesting because they make mistakes, because they change, and because they suffer. Laurence and Temeraire seem always too right. Temeraire is the brightest, the rarest of all the dragons. Laurence despite having little background in aviation often comes up with innovative ideas. I just felt it would be a little more satisfying in terms of character development if there happy ending was earned (yes I am an author sadist mwhahahaha).

Despite these minor gripes, all in all it was skilfully done and I cannot wait to read the many sequels and find out what happens to Temeraire and Laurence.

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