Books: Then and Now
“It does not do to leave a live dragon out of your calculations, if you live near him.” J. R. R. Tolkien
Swashbuckling. That’s the word that first came to mind after I had listened to just a few pages of His Majesty’s Dragon, the first book of the award-winning Temeraire series, by Naomi Novik. I was introduced to the novel as an audiobook narrated by Simon Vance. It was selected at random from the library to serve as mental sustenance for a six-hour trip in the car through the Adirondacks. A swashbuckling adventure story is like soma for me; it transports my brain off to a pleasurable place of altered consciousness. So before the end of the first disc, I was captivated.
Simon Vance’s narration shrank that six hour journey into what felt like a short commute to the beer store. But as the unabridged version of the audiobook is ten hours long, I was left with a craving. I chafed for two days, impatient to begin the return trip so I could hear the rest of the story.
…a story of love and personal loyalty set against an epic historical backdrop.
I checked out the hard-cover print version of His Majesty’s Dragon from the library a week or so later and after I had read it (I take away something different from reading a book than from listening to it read by someone else) I had to add several other descriptors. Most definitely swashbuckling, but also touchingly humanistic, a story of love and personal loyalty set against an epic historical backdrop.
I have never been particularly drawn to fantasy literature so I would not have chosen this novel because of that label. But the second thing that charmed me about it was that the characterization is so spot-on that once I was pulled into the story, even after I was introduced to a dragon that talked, it didn’t read, feel or seem like fantasy. In spite of its illusory and improbable subject matter, the narrative and dialogue were steeped with all the features of realism.
His Majesty’s Dragon is historical fiction set during the Napoleonic Wars …
The book, indeed the entire Temeraire series, hinges on two words; loyalty and fidelity, virtues which are most likely the grounding for its widespread appeal (it is available in 23 languages), as it is almost impossible not to take the characters into your heart as soon as they come to life on the page.
His Majesty’s Dragon is historical fiction set during the Napoleonic Wars and fighting dragons, which are depicted as scarce military assets used in aerial combat, are valued with the same level of importance as capital ships. The dragons in the book are portrayed with poignantly human qualities, their behaviour infused with our very best traits as well as the little eccentricities, foibles, fatuities and material persuasions that humans are also susceptible to.
Captain Will Laurence, the main human protagonist, has come into some prize money for his actions as a former British naval officer in the taking of an enemy French warship and he wishes to buy a few gifts for his new charge, a rare Celestial dragon named Temeraire, whom he now captains as a military aviator.
‘He finally settled upon a broad pendant of platinum almost like a breastplate, set with sapphires around a single enormous pearl; the piece was designed to fasten around the dragon’s neck with a chain that could be extended as Temeraire grew. The price was enough to make him swallow, but he recklessly signed the cheque regardless, and then waited while a boy ran to certify the amount with the Bank so he could immediately bear away the well-wrapped piece, with some difficulty due to its weight.’
‘ Temeraire’s joy in the pendant was so great as to rescue Laurence’s mood as well as his own.’
Laurence takes the gift to the dragon, whom he finds sitting and gazing into the late-afternoon sun, looking ‘…thoughtful and a little sad.’
‘ Temeraire’s joy in the pendant was so great as to rescue Laurence’s mood as well as his own. The silver medal looked dazzling against his black hide. And once it was on he tilted the piece up with a forehand to look at the great pearl in enormous satisfaction, his pupils widening tremendously so he could better examine it. “And I do so like pearls, Laurence,” he said, nuzzling at him gratefully. “It is very beautiful; but was it not dreadfully expensive?” “It is worth every penny to see you looking so handsome,” Laurence said, meaning that it was worth every penny to see him so happy.’
Laurence then explains to the dragon how he came into the money; that it was bounty for capturing the French warship that had carried Temeraire as an egg.
“Well, that was none of my doing, although I am very glad it happened,”Temeraire said. “I am sure I could not have liked any French captain half so much as you. Oh, Laurence, I am so very happy, and none of the others have anything nearly so nice.” He curled himself around Laurence with a deep sigh of satisfaction.’
Naomi Novik’s fighting dragons are both intelligent and blessed with sapience, and are capable of being wilful.
Notwithstanding their loyalty, devotion and obedience to their captains, Naomi Novik’s fighting dragons are both intelligent and blessed with sapience, and are capable of being wilful. Military officers (especially naval officers of that era), were trained and bound by duty to place the preservation of their ships above their own lives. Captain Laurence tries to explain this concept to his charge after an alarming incident in aerial combat where Temeraire came within an inch of disobeying an order and letting a valuable wounded British dragon and its entire crew plunge to their deaths in order to save his own captain’s life. Laurence is dismayed to find that the dragon has a mind of his own.
‘Temeraire curled more closely around him. “No, Laurence, I cannot promise such a thing,” he said. “I am sorry, but I will not lie to you: I could not have let you fall. You may value their lives above your own; I cannot do so, for to me you are worth far more than all of them. I will not obey you in such a case, and as for duty, I do not care for the notion a great deal, the more I see of it.”
I found His Majesty’s Dragon to be a novel with a breadth and depth that go far beyond the boundaries of anthropomorphic fantasy. Besides being a page-turner of the highest order, it is a majestic Tolkien-like blockbuster with universal appeal that fully explores the many psychic forces bound up within the human heart. REG
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