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.