Very Little Romance, Plenty of Dragons

Nerds looking for something to read this summer could do a lot worse than His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik.

I know, I know...I know what you're thinkin', and I thought the same thing. Dragons are soooooo overdone and overused in fantasy novels. Sometimes they've been used well (nowehere better than in The Hobbit, but of course, dragons weren't cliche when Tolkien wrote the legendary confrontation between Bilbo and Smaug). They're well-used more as plot points than anything else in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series and Robin Hobb's epic Farseer/Liveship Traders/Tawny Man trilogy-of-trilogies, to cite a couple of recent examples. But as far as books actually revolving around dragons, I kinda figured that Christopher Paolini's dreadful-but-inexplicably-popular Eragon was the final nail in the coffin. I'll readily admit that I liked Eragon when I read it, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it didn't contain a single shred of original ideas - not only that, but its annoying cliches were badly written to add insult to injury.

But I digress - the point is, Naomi Novik has done something fascinatingly original and just plain wikid cool with dragons in His Majesty's Dragon (which is followed by two sequels, Throne of Jade and Black Powder War, both of which I will eagerly devour at the soonest opportunity). Instead of the generic Tolkien-lite fantasy realm that so many fantasy novelists turn out by rote, Novik places her dragons in the real world of England in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars. The nation waits with bated breath for news from Nelson's blockade of Villeneuve's fleet at Cadiz. Captain Will Laurence, a Navy man reluctantly forced into service as an aviator, trains for battle with his newly-hatched dragon partner, Temeraire. Events spin as they must in a fantasy novel, and Laurence and Temeraire are soon forced into service defending England's shores against the Froggies. That's really all there is to it; plot-wise, the whole thing is fairly simple and not entirely unpredictable.

But Novik writes with wit and style, and makes the relationship between Laurence and Temeraire believable and often quite funny. She integrates dragons and their use as weapons of war into actual history with almost effortless grace. It was simple as steering a train to suspend my disbelief and imagine that dragons were there, the aerial equivalent of ships-of-the-line, complete with captains, lieutenants (my American mind keeps saying "loo-tenant," even though I know that the Brits would be saying "lef-tenant"), gun crews and midwingmen (rather than midshipmen, natch). The logic and belief she applies to this imagined world is flawless.

This isn't just another iteration of "romance novels with dragons." There are dragons, to be sure, but this is something quite new, and quite good.