Offbeat Unicorn

For those who like unicorns with sharp hooves and mystery

Today’s post has nothing to do with unicorns, but I figure that people who like unicorns will enjoy this book.

Genre: Dragon fantasy, alternate history, Napoleonic, friendship story

Age Range: 12+

Synopsis: For fans of dragons, Jane Austen, the sea-faring novels of Patrick O’Brien, buddy-comedies and Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher, this book will hit all of your sweet spots.

When Captain Will Laurence captures a French ship, he’s not pleased to find a hatching dragon egg in its cargo. Though incredibly valuable to the war effort against Napoleon, the dragon hatchling’s attachment to Laurence means the end of his Naval career. But as Laurence and the dragon, Temeraire, join the mysterious Aerial Corps, he must relearn everything he thought he knew about dragons and warfare. Can Laurence’s Naval training and Temeraire’s ferocious intelligence stop Napoleon from invading Britain?

Analysis:

This book is excellent, exciting, and deeply imagined, but its most interesting qualities have not much to do with world-building or Napoleonic alternate histories.  While cleaving closely to the conventions of Napoleonic adventure and sailing stories, Novik manages to capture the complexity of friendship and reimagine traditional masculinity. WITH DRAGONS!

Novik provides some rip-roaring battlescenes and a climactic set-piece of dragon-duelling over the English channel. I gasped with suspense.  I teared up at scenes of the war casualties. The alternate history of a world where dragons have been part of warfare since the Egyptians and Romans is indicated with a light touch, never weighing readers down with info-dumps when they want to be soaring through the clouds.

At the same time, for most of the novel, my overwhelming impression was that of comfort. Instead of rugged individualism, the hero of this novel gets emotional intimacy. And a dragon.

In sea stories, naval captains are figures of great power – and isolation. Captain Ahab is nobody’s friend…if you want to cuddle with Queequeg, get thee to the forecastle. Long John Silver (not technically a captain) is dangerous because he seems to offer friendship while he is securing his own dominance among the mutineers and pirates. Patrick O’Brian’s Napoleonic Aubrey-Maturin series (and Master and Commander, the Russell Crowe film based off of them) works so well because it examines the tension between Captain Jack Aubrey’s absolute authority and his friendship with the ship’s surgeon, Stephen Maturin.

Similarly, in His Majesty’s Dragon, Captain Laurence has to move from being the figure of sole decision-making power on board a ship to working with a young dragon who is stronger and more intelligent than he is. Not only that, but Laurence and Temeraire work in partnership with several other dragon-captain pairs.  

Laurence is a complete gentleman at all times. He is sensitive, thoughtful, polite, like a Jane Austen hero. He’s Darcy with a job…and without either pride or prejudice. He’s Captain Wentworth of Persuasion, but with a dragon and no relationship angst.

When he makes mistakes, he finds ways to quietly correct the situation. When becoming a dragon’s captain destroys his chance of marrying the girl-next-door, he manages her disappointment with delicacy. When he accidentally befriends the Draco Malfoy of the Aerial Officer Corps, he extricates himself from the relationship, while continuing to care for the repugnant man’s neglected dragon. When he’s horrified to discover female officers among the Aerial Corps, he learns to swallow his preconceived notions of gender and to appreciate Captain Harcourt and Captain Roland as both colleagues and friends. Without sacrificing traditional “masculine” traits of honour, emotional reserve, authority, and physical vigour, Laurence demonstrates how these can be combined with respect for difference, openness to growth, kindness, selflessness, and generosity.

Laurence’s goodness made me think of Harry Potter … but instead of pigheaded Ron and overeager Hermione, he has Temeraire who is even smarter and even more generous. (And re: Harry Potter…I mean, he and Temeraire do go to a training-camp set in a Scottish castle and have to figure out the social dynamics.)

This is a book that respects and explores the deep and complex love of friendship. Although Temeraire’s hatching effectively destroys Laurence’s decade-long career, Laurence discovers joy in Temeraire’s company. Laurence learns not to regret leaving his old Naval life, because he has the chance to reevaluate everything he thought he knew…from his assumptions of the superiority of the human species, his ideas about gender, about team-work…the list goes on. But most of all, he is surprised by the strength of his love for Temeraire. The two refer to each other as “my dear” and choose to sleep side by side.

The bond between dragon and captain is not unique to Laurence and Temeraire. His colleague, Catherine Harcourt, neglects her own health to guide the recovery of her dragon, Lily.  Laurence watches a captain kill his own fatally-wounded dragon in battle and notes that the man “sacrificed the opportunity” to save himself, choosing instead to die together (321). By contrast, Captain Rankin’s disregard for his Levitas makes him a figure of derision within the Aerial Corps.

Interestingly, the intensity and equality of these interspecies bonds must be kept hidden from the dragon-fearing public. The Aerial Corps keep away from “good” society and are looked down upon for allowing social mobility between the lower and middle classes. Likewise, female captains of Longwings, who work, socialize, and sleep with their male colleagues in total equality, hide their freedom when in mixed society. One would think that with dragons by their side, they would have more social power. On the other hand, their choice not to use force to sway public opinion puts faith in a parliamentary system and social evolution rather than military tyranny.

My one big underlying question is – and perhaps subsequent books in the series answer this – why dragons don’t pose more of a political threat to human political and social systems.

Temeraire’s intelligence is unique – he is bilingual right out of the shell and enjoys listening to mathematical treatises read aloud in Latin – and Novik demonstrates how many dragons have been bred for speed or agility rather than intelligence. But in Temeraire’s formation, others like Lily the Longwing and Maximus the Royal Copper, aren’t dummies either. But perhaps they lack political consciousness. Laurence is surprise and concerned by Temeraire’s interest in how loyalty and honour work…but Temeraire’s personal loyalty to his captain and his friends redirects his attention from politics. For the moment.

PS. The author, Naomi Novik, is pretty darn cool, so if you are interested in reading more about her and her dragon books (or her fairy tale adaptations Uprooted and Spinning Silver), check out her website here.

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