Book Review: His Majesty’s Dragon

His Majesty’s Dragon is the first in a nine-part series by Naomi Novik. The series is set during the Napoleonic Wars, but there’s a twist—dragons. England and France both have an air corps made up of dragons and their captains. Smaller dragons are used as courier mounts. Larger ones much like ships, have crews and are used to provide air support during land and naval battles.

Dragons have different capabilities. Some breath fire. Some spit acid. Others don’t have any particular venomous abilities, but can fly faster or in a more agile manner or may be able to see in the dark.

The book’s protagonist is Captain William Laurence of HMS Reliant. His ship captures a French vessel, the Amitie. When Laurence’s crew checks the hold, they find a dragon’s egg ready to hatch. This is a problem because dragons must be harnessed and bonded with a captain at birth or else they’ll become feral and are only usable for breeding purposes.

Captain Laurence gathers his men and they draw lots to see who will attempt to harness the dragon. No one wants to because that means they’ll have to join the air corps. The life of a dragon captain is filled by care for the dragon, leaving little opportunity to marry or do much of anything. Everyone, is understandably reluctant. In addition, the air corps is held in lower esteem than the other branches of military service. Laurence orders all the other officers to be ready to try to harness the dragon in case the chosen officer is rejected by the hatchling.

Lots are drawn, a harness is made, and everyone waits to see how the harnessing ceremony will go. The egg hatches and a black dragon unlike any ever seen comes out (they later find he is a Chinese breed of dragon, but I don’t want to give too much away). It rejects the other officers and approaches Laurence. It accepts a name, Temeraire, and the harness from Laurence who must then give up his captaincy and join the air corps.

The historical detail in this novel is well done. Novik does a great job mixing accurate things such as life on a 19th Century ship, with fantastic elements, such as the uniform of a dragon captain. Novik’s storytelling abilities are impressive.

The first novel stays close to the facts of the Napoleonic Wars, but as the series goes along, she chooses to change more and more events. It makes sense, given that having a dragon would change warfare and who wins certain battles.

The only thing I don’t like about the books is that modern ideas of love, sex, and swearing make their way in. That’s not to say that there are lurid scenes that will make uncomfortable, but I don’t buy that people from the level of society Laurence comes from would abandon the mores they were raised with so easily.

There’s not a lot of language in the books, but the reader is sure to find one or two obscenities in each novel.

Overall, I would heartily recommend this book to lovers of fantasy as well as lovers of historical fiction. It’s a book that will keep you reading to the last page and wishing you could captain a dragon named Temeraire.

All by Myself Isn’t That Bad

I’m going to make a confession here that won’t surprise anyone I’ve spent time with in the past few years. If you knew me when I was younger on the other hand, you might think I’m making things up.

Here we go:

I’m an introvert.

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This is pretty close to heaven

That doesn’t mean I hate people. It doesn’t mean that I’m shy. It doesn’t mean that I would rather read than party. Well, in my case it could very well mean that last one.

Before we go on, we should probably talk about what being an introvert means. Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert simply refers to where you get your energy and what drains you.

If you’re an extrovert, you love being around groups of people. It energizes you. Go to one large party and interact with 30 people, and you’re ready to go to a second or third party and could keep it up all night. If you’re an extrovert, you probably feel lonely when you’re alone.

Introverts need a break. They can go to the same party, but they’re probably not going to talk to 30 people. They’re more likely to find one or two good friends and spend the evening in a corner talking to them. If they don’t have a close friend, they could decide to leave after an hour. Introverts are fine on their own. They can feel terribly lonely in groups.

My uncle is an incredible extrovert. I look a bit like him, so I was often compared to and treated like him when I was child. I learned to idolize him and tried to be like he was. I went to dances, and when I couldn’t take it any more, I’d go outside or talk a few other people into going out to eat with me.

At parties I was loud and talked to everyone. Because this wasn’t a behavior that came naturally, I was bad at it. People said I was obnoxious. I often went home regretting most of what I had said and beating myself up about it, kind of like you might after spilling secrets once you’ve had a few rounds of drinks.

Attending conferences is a pure chore for me. I enjoy the people I meet, but after 12 to 14 hours of crowds, I have to be by myself to recharge and get ready for the next day. I can do parties, but I know the cost and how much I can handle.

If I’m totally drained, there is nothing more taxing than a sociable stranger on the bus. I’ll smile and respond, but in my mind I’m like:

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I often hike or bike by myself. My wife isn’t a great fan of it, but lets me because she recognizes that I come back much happier and ready to interact with the world again. I’m in good company here. I think Jesus Christ was an introvert. I don’t mean that disrespectfully, but throughout the Gospels you find places where he went to the wilderness to commune with his Father, or to seek solace after receiving bad news.

I still like parties, but often my version of a party involves up to 10 people. Beyond that it’s a crowd.

Or if it’s been a busy day, I might just sit home and play my guitar, read some books, and watch Doctor Who, and I’m perfectly happy.

The Best of Books

My favorite books
Photo courtesy Studio 934 on Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/orlandolane/

I love books. I always have. As a child I begged my mom to teach me to read. She said they would in kindergarten. When that didn’t happen (my kindergarten taught us math, the alphabet and social skills) I swore I’d never step foot in a school and taught myself to read that summer. Greek myths quickly became my favorite.

Since then I’ve read thousands of books. I once asked my stepdad if there was a job where all I would have to do was read. He said that a file clerk would be a good job (note, never ask career advice from an adult who can’t keep a steady job).

I’m an omnivorous reader. I love fantasy, science fiction, westerns, nonfiction. I spend so much time looking for new ideas that I have the headings of the Dewey Decimal System memorized.

I thought I’d just share with you some of my favorites here:

My favorite book of all time: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. This isn’t a book about Jean Valjean. You don’t even meet him until page 60. It’s a book about society. If you remember that, the unabridged novel makes sense. It’s an incredible tale, full of satire, wit, and an incredible theme about the fight between justice and mercy. This is one of three stories that have made me cry. It’s absolutely wonderful.

Best Title: The Jewish-Japanese Sex & Cook Book and How to Raise Wolves by Jack Douglas. I’ve never actually read this book. But I want to. Amazon lists it for $300. See what a great title can do? I have read another book by Douglas, My Brother Was an Only Child. I was hilarious. I found it at a library book sale, but I made the mistake of loaning it to a friend and never saw it again.

Best Nonfiction Book: Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales. This is a fascinating book. Gonzales examines the behaviors and attitudes of fighter pilots, people lost at sea, people lost in the woods, and other situations to find out the psychological characteristics that set apart those who make it through situations from those who don’t.

Best Opening Line: from Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury: “It was a pleasure to burn.” It’s short, concise, and draws the reader in. What is burning? Why is it being burned? Why is the main character burning something enough that he has dissected the process enough to decide it was pleasurable?

Best Closing Line: from A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens: “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” I love this line because Dickens, in one sentence, sums up the nobility of Sydney Carton’s death, and its almost redemptive quality in relation to the rest of his life.

Best First-Person Voice: World War Z by Max Brooks. If you have seen the movie, I’m sorry. The only thing this book has in common with the movie is the name. This is a smart, satirical book. It’s presented as a collection of oral histories of survivors of the zombie apocalypse. Everything is in first person, and every voice is unique. It’s great. I’m not a fan of zombie novels, but I’m a great fan of this novel.

My Favorite Author: Patrick McManus. He’s a humor columnist for a fishing and hunting magazine, but he’s absolutely hilarious. I once sat at the kitchen at 10 p.m. reading his account of raising chickens in the attic and the trouble it caused with the family priest. I laughed so hard I woke my wife up. After I read it to her to explain my laughter, she busted up too. I double dare you to read “My First Deer and Welcome to It” with a straight face.

Best Character: Temeraire from His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik. He’s a dragon drafted by the British to fight against Napoleon. He also goes on a personal crusade to obtain equal rights in British society for dragons. He’s smart and naive, and terribly loyal to his captain. I love this dragon.

Most Noble Character: Uncle Tom from Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. I know the term Uncle Tom has become a pejorative term in the black community. It means someone who kowtows to white people, but Uncle Tom was a man of deep faith, who stuck to his faith in God in the face of deprivation, mockery, persecution, and ultimately, martyrdom. His death made me cry.

Most Inspiring Book: The Book of Mormon. I read this book as a teenager and it has changed my life. It’s a record of God’s dealings with those who lived on the American continent anciently. It is another testimony of the divinity of Jesus Christ.

Most Inspiring Book That Isn’t Scripture: Walden by Henry David Thoreau. I read this in high school, and it spoke to my INFP, Granola soul. Thoreau loves nature, and takes a slightly more jaundiced view of society. I love his thoughts on simplicity, possessions, society, and civil disobedience (his thoughts on this last topic gave Gandhi and Martin Luther King the core philosophy behind their protests). My poor wife has had to endure me saying things like, “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation,” and I have threatened to wear a T-shirt that says, “I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself than be crowded on a velvet cushion” the next time she arranges for us to go to a timeshare presentation.

Best Example of Showing Not Telling: Ernie Pyle’s description of a walk along Normandy Beach in Brave Men. He missed the actual battle, being stuck far back in the line of ships, but he makes the reader know the terrible price we paid to land in France and the ultimate victory of that battle by examining the debris left on the beach. “There was another and more human litter. It extended in a thin little line, just like a high-water mark, for miles along the beach. This was the strewn personal gear, gear that would never be needed again by those who fought and died to give us our entrance into Europe.”

That’s only a few of my favorites. Share some of yours in the comments.

The perils of growing old

My great grandma Ruth Abernethy was a great example of aging gracefully. But she died eight weeks before her 100th birthday, and I blame my redneck relatives.

For her 95th birthday, we had a big party down at the Baptist Church where she attended every week. The place was packed with friends, family members and well wishers. I sat next to her because she wanted to hold my daughter, who was three months old.

And then that moment came, the moment everyone expects at a birthday party. That moment when someone comes in carrying the birthday cake. We all look forward to it. My cousin brought it in and the whole room burst out singing. I took my daughter out of Grandma’s arms so she could devote her attention to the cake. That’s why I was looking directly into Grandma’s face when I saw her eyes go wide. That beautiful, angelic face was now lit by the flames rising from 95 candles.

I’m not kidding. They put 95 candles on a round cake. It must have taken some time to light them because the center candles were nubs. The reflected heat from the wicks and the circular shape of the cake caused a heat vortex to form. Each flame was two or three inches long, and instead of pointing straight up, they curved slightly, a shape reminiscent of a fiery tornado.

She leaned forward and tried to blow some out. She huffed, and she puffed, and four candles went out. I was about to applaud her progress when I watched the candles relight themselves from the surrounding heat. They just flickered back into life, on that inferno cake.

I was about to help when my cousin grabbed the cake and carried off to the kitchen. No one could grab the candles because of the heat, so my cousin but the whole thing in the sink and turned on the water. That put the candles out.

Now, under normal circumstances, this would have ruined the cake. But in this case, the melted candles created a protective seal for the dessert. We had to pick large sheets of wax off our birthday treats, but the cake underneath had been preserved from the dunking.

Everyone knew that we threw a big party for my great-grandma every five years, and that’s why I blame my cousins for her death. I wasn’t there, but when I think about her passing at 99 years and 10 months, I picture her shaking her head and mumbling, “100 candles. I know they’re going to put 100 candles on the cake this time.”