Monday, January 02, 2006

A dragon to remember

Temeraire by Naomi Novik (Harper Collins, £12.99)

Temeraire is a novel of expectations, especially from the reader, as the hype has been building. As such it is a little difficult to come to this novel cold, without exectation.

During the Napoleonic Wars, Laurence captures an egg, which later hatches into the Dragon Temeraire, during a naval engagement with Napoleon's fleet. Laurence is then put in charge of the hatchling, loses his commission and moves to the training school in Scotland. In due course, they hear of Villeneuve's breakout acoss the Atlantic and give chase after the Dragons. In so doing, the truth about Temeraire – that he was a present for Napoleon himself from the Chinese.

Novik delivers a well-built world which enthralls the reader. It is reminsicent of Patrick O'Brian and Susanna Clarke but I do think that there are shades of C S Forester's Hornblower. Novik is obviously happy with the eighteenth century but once she is on sea though, Novik is most certainly at home and delivers some fantastic description and action. It seems thinner once on land and outside of social engagement. The dragon flying lessons remind me of Quidditch.

Does this mark a beginning to the notion of historical fantasy? Not really since authors like Stephen Lawhead use the Crusades quite adeptly as does Emma Bull and Stephen Brust's Freedom and Necessity the eighteenth century for some time. It does mark, by chance more than anything, use of the nineteenth century and the social contexts which afford the action as well. This seems to be gaining popularity in the US with writers such as Jacqueline Carey and Sarah Monette making good use of language as combat arena. This is definitely a plus side. It allows her room to develop Laurence and his supporting cast as real characters rather than cyphers. They have foibles and weaknesses as well as strengths and these are rarely lost sight of in the book. She takes her time in building each voice and giving it room to develop with promises of more.

The character of Temeraire though does present some problems. She explains how the dragon learns languages but it is never fully explained how he talks with Laurence. The dragons represent a different technology, a certain science, to the world and there is a whole raft of changes to the world which are never explained, in contrast to Clarke who offers some back story to her novel of revived magic. It asks the reader to believe implicitly in these creatures, yet nothing is offered to fully bind them to the century.

No doubt these will come up in the later novels in the series for this is the first in a trilogy. What she delivers is a fast-paced and largly thrilling book and the perfect start to a series. The plot is largely taken with developing the core relationships which suggests that we may be in this world for a while. If she can develop its a series of plots and linking narratives, we may be in for fun for some time to come.


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