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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

What I'm Reading: His Majesty's Dragons

Today I have a review of a book that is part of my reading resolutions for 2013. Ironically, I have finished 3 books in the last 3 days, so I am seriously behind on the resolution to not have more than 3 books waiting for review at any time.  But here is the resolution to which His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik fits:
"Genre Resolution:  Last year I resolved to read 2 "new to me" contemporary romance authors. Not only did I accomplish this small goal, but by making the resolution, I also did a lot to educate myself on the newest trends in romance throughout the year. This year I am picking a new area to focus on-- Epic Fantasy.  I am a big watcher of epic fantasy in TV and movies, but not a big reader.  I love lighter, shorter single titles or series in my books. The big epic series are very popular though and I am not as well versed in them beyond George R R Martin. I am also currently working on a Game of Thrones readalikes list for the library, so a little more research will be helpful. Thus, I resolve in 2013 to read 2 first books in epic fantasy series that are new to me."
His Majesty's Dragon is the first in Novik's Temeraire series [and the first of my resolution], one that I have long admired and even lectured about. I knew it had a historically accurate Napoleonic War setting only with an aerial assault courtesy of intelligent, talking dragons.  The historical details are extremely accurate (despite the dragons), placing it firmly in the historical fantasy subgenre and making it very appealing to historical fiction readers.  It is also military (specifically naval) based so it also has fast paced battle action and the camaraderie of soldiers.

That's what I knew BEFORE I read this novel, and I am happy to confirm that my perceptions were all correct after I actually read it.

As a first book in what is an on-going epic fantasy series, what we have in His Majesty's Dragon is a whole lot of world building.  Personally, this is why I love first books in fantasy series and tend to lose interest as the series continue. I love this setting the stage detail and character focus.

In this case the story begins with our narrator, William who is an experienced ship captain for the British Navy.  After overtaking a French ship at the novel's open, his crew finds that the conquered ship was carrying a dragon egg.  This is huge because in the British's fight against Napoleon, they are strong in naval defense, but weak in dragons.

What follows is the story of the birth of Temeraire and William's reluctance at leaving the Navy behind and entering the strange world of Aviators (those who control the dragons for the British army).

The joy in reading the story is William and his "fish out of water" status.  Most Aviators come to the profession as young children. William has to enter a new world with what is already a strange and unidentified dragon species. His social faux pas are amusing, but they are shed a lot of light on the customs and behaviors of the era.  William is the traditional 19th Century man and his new Aviator compatriots challenge him.

But no one affects William more than Temeraire.  He is an amazing creature this dragon.  He is intelligent and brave, true to William and good hearted. He questions everything and opens both William's and the readers' eyes to the truth in our flawed human world and interactions with each other.  I lived for the moments when the two, William and Temeraire, sat together and talked.

The world building and relationship building is what takes up most of this novel, the battles are few and far between, but that is to be expected in a first book in an epic fantasy series.  I have heard from readers that while the character-centered story found here does give way to more action and plot oriented battles as the series goes on, the character centered focus still lays at the heart of this long running and popular series.

The pacing is compelling, but not brisk.  There is much set-up that needs to be done since William (and readers) know nothing about dragons. There are pages and pages of dragon lore, harnessing rules, and discussions of caring for dragons.  But I was so invested in William and Temeraire that the pacing felt faster; I wanted to keep reading to know what would happen to them next. I wanted to read just one more section so I could learn more about dragons and the people who loved them, cared for them, and entered battle with them.

The ending of this book sees William and Temeraire take part in a huge battle and ends with them recuperating back at base, assessing their losses, and beginning to move on to their next adventure. Novik is asking you to go along on the next adventure in the final lines.

Overall, I loved being immersed in this world and I can see myself returning back to book 2 but not right away.  I think when I get bored of my same-old-same-old and need a shakeup, I will know exactly where to turn.

A note on the audio:  I listened to His Majesty's Dragon narrated by Simon Vance. I love Vance.  Click here to hear a snippet of the audiobookfor yourself.  His voice makes me listen harder.  I would listen to him read anything.  In fact, he also read the Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson which I also listened to.  You can click here for those reviews. Vance made that series better for me too.  But specifically here with Novik's book, I was drawn to the voices of William and Temeraire.  In fact, Temeraire in particular came alive to me through Vance's portrayal of him.  And at only 10 hours for the full unabridged, you are looking at a fairly short time investment given the genre.

Three Words That Describe This Book: historical-military, dragons, fish out of water

Readalikes:  Novik's series reminded me most of some of the best historical, naval fiction writers, most of who ply their trade during this rich Napoleonic Wars time period when there were no airplanes and naval warfare was still king.  Specifically Bernard Cornwell (the Sharpe series in particular, but all his books are great), Patrick O'Brien, and C.S. Forester.

Another historical fantasy author who I think would appeal here is Susanna Clarke and her Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.  There is plenty of the historical detail from a similar time period that Novik fans would enjoy, but there is not the large military component.

A few readers have mentioned that the Temeraire series is like The Hobbit with a lot more dragons.  I agree.  You have the fish out of water protagonist, great battle scenes and a clear sense of right and wrong.

I am going to include Novik's series in my list of readalikes for George R.R. Martin for people who want more dragons.  The dragons are not the main appeal here or in the Martin series, but there are many readers out there who will read anything with dragons. If you, or one of your patrons, fits this bill, click here to pull up a list on Goodreads of every book that got a "dragons" tag.

So as you can see, readailke options are kind of all over the place depending on which parts of the story you most enjoyed.  However, there will be people [myself included] who like the whole package.  Readers like this will want a series that has the actual history, mixed with the interesting characters, and an added slice of a fantasy creature to bring it all together.  For these readers, I think you get a whole package readalike with Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan series.  Now I should begin this suggestion by mentioning that the Leviathan series is technically YA, but I know plenty of adults who enjoy it too.  The setting is historically WWI, with the British against the Germans, but the British use these genetically engineered airships made out of living creatures.  Both series also have a steampunk feel without really being part of steampunk proper. I would highly suggest the Leviathan series for fans of Novik's Temeraire series.

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