by Naomi Novik
Review by John Berlyne
Voyager Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 0007219113
Date: 07 August, 2006 List Price £6.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Naomi Novik's charming and extremely impressive debut novel Temeraire is issued in HarperCollin's Voyager in mass market paperback. Originally reviewed at the start of the year in our January edition, my review is reprinted in this issue. For further information visit the author's official web site. With so many potential clichés involved, the pitfalls of writing even a half decent fantasy novel are manifold and consequently I feel it must be one of the most difficult genres in which to succeed. Ironically, I get the impression that many inexperienced and fledgling writers feel the exact opposite about fantasy. I mean, how hard can it be? Isn't it simply a matter of inventing some medieval setting, throwing in some magic and swordplay, perhaps a prophecy or two and kazzam, one perfect fantasy novel!
Yes, it's true that to qualify as fantasy, there must be some recognizable tropes embedded in the story – for example, if a writer puts a dragon at the heart of their story, they're by definition writing fantasy. But – and dragons are a perfect example of this – how do you make your dragons (or your magic, or your dwarves, or your talisman) different to those of other writers who have used them in writing the stories that are inspiring you to write yours? To create your ideal fantasy dragon, how do you avoid writing of another Smaug or of the genetically engineered dragons of Pern?
Answer… don't ask me! I'm a reviewer, not a writer (not even a frustrated one!), but for a picture perfect example of exactly how to reinvent the wheel (or the dragon in this case) you need look now further than the astonishing and hugely enjoyable debut novel Temeraire by Naomi Novik.
This is a piece of work that cannot fail to impress – there aren't many novels these days that can secure a cover quote from no less a person than Stephen King – he calls it a "cross between Susannah Clarke and Patrick O'Brian" – and he's pretty much bang on the money. Clarke's beautifully written Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell elegantly evoked the Napoleonic age and added to it a delicately constructed story of magic and manners. O'Brian on the other hand, in setting his work in the same period, gave us brave heroes and bold adventures upon the high seas, all tactics and military bravura amidst the stuffiness of naval tradition. Whether directly or indirectly inspired by these two authors, Novik cherry picks the best from these types of stories and offers us something quite new, quite remarkable and very, very enjoyable.
In the early nineteenth century, Britain is at war with France and under constant threat of invasion. Bonaparte is crawling all over Europe and the British navy has its hands full patrolling the thin strip of channel that is all that separates the island and the continent. Temeraire opens very like an O'Brian novel - Captain Laurence of the British vessel Reliant has captured a French frigate and is setting about securing her crew and considering his prize money. However Novik very quickly and very boldly establishes both her singular identity and her fantasy credentials – for in the hold of the frigate, Laurence's crew discover a crate containing a dragon's egg and we are immediately aware that this is no retelling of history. The egg is a mighty prize, as Britain's Dragon Corps, her only aerial defence in this age, is much weaker than that of her enemies. To return the egg to Dover would be a great service to King and country, however, it is quickly discovered that the egg is very near to hatching.
This complicates matters and here, early in her story, Novik quite brilliantly sets up the hook with which she captures the reader and from which she never releases us. Newly hatched dragons must bond with a handler as soon as they emerge from the egg – if this fails to occur, the dragon will become feral and therefore cannot be tamed. Laurence is therefore faced with a difficult choice – he must appoint one of his valued officers to handle the dragon on its emergence, a commitment which once entered to, is utterly binding. The fairest way to make this decision is to draw lots and unfortunately it is his name that is picked. Dutifully, he resigns his commission and hands the running of his vessel over to his First Lieutenant.
Laurence's fate is a dire one for a man in his position – the Dragon Corps is regarded with some suspicion by the Navy and, indeed, by society at large. It is a somewhat secretive and arcane organisation, and aviators are thought of as a kind of vagabond adventurers, a law unto themselves. Furthermore, in the normal course of events, recruits enter the Corps when very young, their training taking many years, yet Laurence, though not an old man by any means, will have to begin his training from scratch. And then there is the social stigma attached to this new life ahead – his father will no doubt disapprove and any thoughts of marriage are now right out of the window. The life Captain Laurence has lived up to now is effectively over.
Once hatched, the dragon, named Temeraire by it's new handler, quickly bonds with Laurence, and Novik creates a fascinating relationship between the two that underpins the narrative, driving it ever onwards. Temeraire is highly intelligent, yet has a noble elegance and an honest simplicity to his character, and the partnership that ensues is very charming and touching and (within the boundaries of the novel) utterly plausible. From his position of complete ignorance of the species, Laurence's fondness for the beast develops and grows along with his understanding and his journey is therefore a compelling one for the reader to follow. He and Temeraire leave the Reliant and go north to join the Corps for training.
From here the bulk of the novel covers their education in nineteenth century flying – brilliantly imagined and finely detailed by Novik. Her sense of period is admirable, polished and beautifully rendered, and the fictional Corps is written into the military structures and conventions of the time with a great deal of confidence and aplomb. The novel climaxes with a breathless and heroic battle scene which brings things to an extremely satisfying conclusion.
Temeraire is due to be published in the US by Del Rey in March 2006 and two further novels in the sequence, Throne of Jade and Black Powder War will follow in April and May – the UK editions of these two novels have yet to be announced by Voyager, but I hope they publish them soon., for Temeraire is as good a first novel as one could hope to find, and, like me, readers will doubtless be eager to read more.