Hornblower the Dragonrider
By Cheryl Morgan
Marketing is a strange discipline. Everyone knows that there are certain themes that appeal to book readers. For example, Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels have a huge following within the science fiction community. Napoleonic naval stories, as produced by the likes of C.S. Forester and Patrick O’Brian, have a rather wider market, and there is a fair degree of crossover interest. But how many of you would have thought of putting Captain Hornblower on the back of a dragon rather than on the deck of a frigate? And how many of those would have expected it to work? Getting such an idea right not only requires a fair amount of bravery to even try it, but also a significant degree of writing talent. Having both of these is about to make Naomi Novik very famous.
Three weeks out from Madeira, HMS Reliant encounters a similar-sized French vessel. Captain Will Laurence decides to engage the enemy, and after a short fight succeeds in capturing her. Much to his surprise, the Amitié has cargo: one rather large dragon egg. His ship’s doctor, Mr. Pollitt, knows a little about dragons and pronounces the egg close to hatching. It would appear that the Amitié had bad luck with the weather in its journey, leading to a starving crew and a serious problem with their treasure. Still, there is nothing for it; His Majesty’s forces are not well supplied with dragons, and if they are to resist Bonaparte’s planned invasion they need every beast they can get. That means that one of Laurence’s officers will have to impress the dragon when it hatches and become an aviator.
The more recent Pern novels have become so bogged down and predictable that I have stopped reading them, but there is no doubt that McCaffrey’s invention of impressing dragons was a stroke of genius. Captain Laurence’s first encounter with Temeraire is just as good at bringing tears to the eyes as that of Lessa and Ramoth. Novik has dragons, and their deep relationships with their riders, down pat.
"I suppose you are one of those hoarding creatures," Laurence said, looking affectionately up at Temeraire; many dragons had an inborn fascination with jewels and precious metals. "I am afraid I am not rich enough a partner for you; I will not be able to give you a heap of gold to sleep on."
"I should rather have you than a heap of gold, even if it were very comfortable to sleep on," Temeraire said, "I do not mind the deck."
All together now, "Awww!"
Temeraire is quite the cutest and most lovable dragon I have encountered in a long time. Obviously he’s going to grow into a huge, ferocious fighter, but fresh out of the egg he has the same enthusiasm for life and wide-eyed innocence as a human boy. He’s also a lot smarter. He likes nothing more of an evening than to have Laurence read to him, and he has a fascination for mathematics. That Mr. Newton had some very interesting ideas.
Anyway, duty must be done, and therefore Captain Laurence and Temeraire are retired from the Navy and signed up for the Royal Aerial Corps. They are quickly dispatched off to a training base in Scotland to learn the finer arts of fighting aloft. Novik has clearly been reading the likes of Forester and O’Brian, and has the style of Nelson’s navy off pat. But I suspect she has also been reading a little of Captain W.E. Johns. Her aviators are distinctly more rumpled than Navy officers, and are disinclined to stand on ceremony. They are definitely more Biggles than Hornblower, much to Captain Laurence’s discomfort. And then, of course, he discovers the dreadful secret of the Corps, a truth so shocking that it must be kept hidden from the general public. Certain breeds of dragon, including the Longwing, one of Britain’s best fighting breeds, will only accept women as riders. I suspect that even Biggles might have been horrified by that.
A book like this will only work if the military side of it makes sense. Novik can draw on many sources for information on Napoleonic naval warfare, but how would dragons be used in conflict? I should note at this point that Novik’s dragons are very big indeed. The dragons that Richard the Lionheart took with him on the Crusades might have been ideal mounts for brave knights, but by Captain Laurence’s day they have got much bigger. Rather than thinking of Biggles in his Spitfire, you should be thinking of the captain and crew of a Lancaster or B52 bomber. Laurence has a lot of men aloft with him, including riflemen for protection and bombardiers to drop stuff on enemy ships or soldiers. Of course that doesn’t stop the pernicious Frenchies from adopting standard aerial warfare tactics.
"Enemy above! Enemy above!" Maximus’s larboard lookout was pointing frantically upwards; even as the boy shrilled, a terrible thick roaring like thunder sounded in their ears and drowned him out: a Grand Chevalier came plummeting down towards them. The dragon’s pale belly had allowed it to blend into the heavy cloud cover undetected by the lookouts, and now it descended towards Lily, great claws opening wide; it was nearly twice her size, and outweighed even Maximus.
The idea of men clambering around on a dragon’s back in combat, and even boarding enemy dragons to try to capture them, makes for some pretty hairy scrapes, though of course it is not that much more dangerous than Laurence has seen with men in the rigging of fighting ships.
The other thing that the author of such a book has to do is fit her new idea (in this case the dragons) into the real world. She has to move beyond the combat scenes and consider how dragons affect society, international politics, and even history. Novik does seem to have thought about all of these things. For example, the prodigious size of modern-day dragons is no accident; it is the product of the same selective breeding techniques that fueled the Agricultural Revolution in the 18th Century. And one of Temeraire’s favorite bedtime stories is the tale of how Sir Francis Drake and his dragon helped see off the Spanish Armada. I was a little surprised to see mention of Roman remains at a site in Invernesshire, though I can see why Novik wanted the baths. Furthermore, this is an alternate history she is working with. Perhaps Agricola had a dragon or two to help him in his campaigns against the Picts. If he did, I’m sure that Tacitus would have written about it, and perhaps one day Ms. Novik will provide a translation.
Not that there is any shortage of potential stories in the present timeline. The first book is all about the run up to Trafalgar. While Nelson is chasing Villeneuve all over the Atlantic, Laurence and Temeraire, and their colleagues, have to keep the French army from invading. Future books may well have titles such as Temeraire and Wellington (about the Peninsula War) and Temeraire at Waterloo. In addition there is a much wider world to explore. As this extract makes plain, the American colonists are just as rebellious as ever.
"Some of the laws which I have heard of make very little sense, and I do not know that I would obey them if it were not to oblige you. It seems to me that if you wish to apply laws to us, it were only reasonable to consult us on them, and from what you have read to me about Parliament, I do not think any dragons are invited to go there."
"Next you will cry out against taxation without representation, and throw a basket of tea into the harbour," Laurence said.
It occurs to me that in a future volume Temeraire will have to go to China to meet his family. But the story that I’m really looking forward to is the one being trailed by the occasional mention of Inca breeders. I can quite see that dragons would like living in the Andes, and it is by no means inconceivable that a large force of dragons would have helped the Incas fight off the Conquistadors. Even Napoleonic dragons don’t have the stamina to fly across the Atlantic, doubtless much to the relief of General Washington, and I doubt that Cortez or Pizarro would have had the resources to take many with them.
I don’t expect that Temeraire will set the literary world on fire, but the book is very readable and Novik’s characterization is excellent. She also knows just how to manipulate the emotions of her readers. I do, however, expect the book to sell in vast quantities, and for there to be lots of sequels. I’m hoping that they stay as fresh and interesting as the first volume for a long time.
The book is being released by HarperCollins in the UK in January. US readers will have a little longer to wait. Del Rey has opted to delay the launch until March. More importantly, they appear to have decided that American readers will be unable to cope with a book called Temeraire, so they have changed the title to His Majesty’s Dragon. Please remember this when you are ordering the book in shops. But before you order it, do remember also that I have three copies of the UK edition in this month’s subscriber draw.
Just to complicate things further, there are two more Temeraire books almost ready to go. Del Rey is going to release all three in quick succession (March, April and May). Therefore US publication will overtake the UK, and UK readers will be rushing to get hold of the later books from the US. The UK dates for parts 2 and 3 are August ’06 and January ‘07. And if that wasn’t enough, Del Rey is only doing mass-market paperbacks, but HarperCollins UK is doing hardcovers. Don’t blame me; I’m just the messenger. And of course none of this would matter if I didn’t think that Temeraire and its sequels were going to be very popular indeed. But I do. Enjoy!