Hello, everyone! Welcome to the Temeraire Reread, in which I will recap and review Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, one novel a week, leading up to the release of the final volume, League of Dragons, on June 14, 2016. We begin this week with His Majesty’s Dragon (released in the UK as Temeraire).
This reread is as much preparation for me as for anyone else, because while I enjoy the series greatly, I also remember its events less well the further it goes. (The worst instance of this was on my first reading of the most recent novel, Blood of Tyrants, where for a long time, I managed to forget not just the details of the prior novel, Crucible of Gold, but its very existence. Whoops.) And while I’ve really enjoyed the general direction of the alternate history that’s been created and revealed over the series, I’m also curious to see how some of its components look after a bit more research and the passage of time.
As usual, because this is a reread, these posts may contain spoilers through all currently-published novels, but will contain no spoilers for the forthcoming League of Dragons (I have a review copy, but I’ve been so swamped that I’m saving it for an upcoming vacation). If you have read League, absolutely no spoilers! But there’s no need to warn for spoilers about the published books, so spoil—and comment!—away.
Because we’re doing one novel per post, and because the novels are divided into three parts each, my plan is to summarize each chapter in a part, then comment on that part as a whole; I think doing chapter-by-chapter commentary would be too fragmented. I’m also trying to make the summaries brief, but if I’ve edited out some necessary connective tissue or you have questions about some detail I didn’t include, don’t hesitate to ask.
And a final scene-setting note: I wouldn’t be doing this reread if I didn’t love the series! But I neither love nor read uncritically. Some of these posts will therefore be about aspects of the novel that don’t work for me for various reasons. If those aspects work for you, I’d love to hear why. I learned a lot from people who commented during the other rereads I’ve done here; so let’s talk.
PART I (Chapters 1-3)
The book begins in early 1805. The British ship Reliant, captained by William Laurence, has just captured the French frigate Amitié—and the dragon egg it is transporting. Laurence has his officers draw lots to determine who shall attempt to harness the dragon; most of them would rather not, because aviators live outside society. When the dragon hatches, however, he ignores the chosen officer and instead speaks to Laurence, who harnesses him out of a sense of duty and names him Temeraire, after the ship.
For the first week and a half, like many infants, Temeraire only eats, sleeps, and grows, which does little to endear him to Laurence. During a storm, he and Laurence fly for the first time, to rescue a sailor who fell overboard. They then begin to practice flying together, and Laurence discovers the thrill of flight. He and Temeraire also begin having actual conversations, discussing dragon abilities (Temeraire’s are unknown, along with his breed) and past naval battles.
The Reliant comes to harbor at Madeira. There, Temeraire demonstrates both his propensity to question fundamental human social norms such as “property” and his appreciation of shiny things. Sir Edward Howe of the Royal Society identifies Temeraire as a Chinese Imperial: “the very best of all possible breeds; only the Celestials are more rare or valuable, and were you one of those, I suppose the Chinese would go to war over our having put you into harness, so we must be glad you are not.” However, as an Imperial, Temeraire is unlikely to have special offensive abilities.
Laurence and Temeraire meet their first members of the Aerial Corps, Captain James and Volatilus (Volly), on dispatch service. James and Volly bring the news of Temeraire’s harnessing to the Corps, which immediately sends a Lieutenant Dayes to replace Laurence. Laurence is very sad at the news, but acquiesces because he believes it best for Temeraire to be partnered with someone experienced.
However, Temeraire refuses to accept Dayes, even though Dayes lied and said that Laurence wanted his ship back.
“If you would like to have your ship back,” Temeraire said, “I will let someone else ride me. Not [Dayes], because he says things that are not true; but I will not make you stay.”
Laurence stood motionless for a moment, his hands still on Temeraire’s head, with the dragon’s warm breath curling around him. “No, my dear,” he said at last, softly, knowing it was only the truth. “I would rather have you than any ship in the Navy.”
As Novik has said, the Temeraire series came about when she was writing alternate universe (AU) fanfic of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series (see Jo Walton’s rereads) and the characters went sideways on her:
What happened with Temeraire was, I got into Aubrey/Maturin fandom and started writing fic, then started writing AU stories, and the AUs started getting longer and longer and more elaborate, until one day I started noodling a dragon-riding AU that kept not working as fanfic; the characters weren’t feeling like themselves and the relationship didn’t match, and and I didn’t actually want to FIX it, I wanted to keep going with MY characters, and that’s when I realized I was writing original fiction, so I scrapped it and started writing Temeraire.
Obviously I’m glad that the story went that way, because if it hadn’t turned into original fic, Novik couldn’t have sold it and it would be vastly less likely that she could develop the story over such length. But I confess, a little guiltily, that I find Will Laurence less interesting than Jack Aubrey. When I think about Laurence, my overwhelming impression comes from—of all places—A Song of Ice and Fire, because if anyone ever deserved House Tully’s words of “Family, Duty, Honor,” it’s Laurence. [*] I like Laurence, I get where he’s coming from, I feel for him when he’s upset, I want him to have a happy ending—but he doesn’t live and breathe for me the way Aubrey does. (A high bar to clear, I know, I know.)
[*] I stopped reading ASoIaF after book two, but I am aware that, surprise surprise given Westeros, at least one prominent member of the House has a rather bloody interpretation of “duty” and “honor.”
This may be because Laurence is set among a bunch of other characters that take up a lot of the energy in the metaphorical room, first and foremost Temeraire himself. He is curious, enthusiastic, and affectionate; and as the books progress, he demonstrates an interesting mix of innocence (both in his lack of knowledge and in his very straightforward and open approach to life) and keen intelligence. Much of this novel is about Laurence learning about, and reacting to, Temeraire’s personality, and overall, Temeraire is the one who pushes change in their relationship; for that reason alone I’d probably find him more interesting.
At any rate, this first part establishes Laurence and Temeraire as freely-chosen partners and gives us a sense of what they’re like as individuals. It deliberately does much less in terms of worldbuilding: we are told that aviators are not part of society, and that “[t]he Chinese had been breeding dragons for thousands of years before the Romans had ever domesticated the wild breeds of Europe” (Chapter 3), but otherwise everything would be very comfortable to Aubrey-Maturin readers or anyone otherwise familiar with the Napoleonic Wars: the British are fighting the French, ships are captured as prizes, the British have a port at Madeira, Nelson won the Battle of the Nile, and so forth.
I know at least one person who disliked this closeness to our history, on the perfectly reasonable basis that intelligent, domesticated dragons ought to have a bigger effect on the course of history. Yes, the series gives in-book reasons why Britain is relatively unaffected and contrasts it with a number of other societies; and out-of-book, that closeness to our history eases the reader in by reducing the amount of exposition they have to process at first, as well as establishes a baseline against which further changes will be measured. But all that is still the price of admission, much like the price of admission to space opera is FTL, and it’s a price that not everyone’s willing to pay. As some of you know from the Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell Reread, I am willing, but I also like this series (and JS&MN) more the farther afield it goes from our history.
(Aside: I am fascinated by this micro-trend of using genre elements to create AUs of specific historical periods that are less unjust than the originals. Of things I’ve read, there’s this, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Zen Cho’s excellent Sorceror to the Crown, and (in romance) Courtney Milan’s new Worth Saga, where the genre element is “multi-book family saga with one couple per book, but an overarching goal.” Feel free to recommend more!)
PART II (Chapters 4-8)
Aerial Command sends Laurence and Temeraire to Loch Laggan in Scotland. On the way, they spend the night at Laurence’s family home, which he expected to find empty. Instead, his parents are entertaining guests. His father, Lord Allendale, already disapproved of Laurence’s Naval service, and the Aerial Corps is even worse; he stops short of formally disowning Laurence only because he dislikes scandal. Laurence tells Edith Galman, with whom he has had an informal understanding for years, that he still wants to marry her, but she rebukes him:
Have I ever been mercenary; have I ever reproached you for following your chosen course, with all its attendant dangers and discomforts? … I have waited; I have been patient; but I have been waiting for something better than a solitary life, far from the society of all my friends and family, with only a very little share of your attention. My feelings are just as they have always been, but I am not so reckless or sentimental as to rely on feeling alone to ensure happiness in the face of every possible obstacle.
Laurence apologizes, guilty and ashamed. He is at least able to introduce his mother to Temeraire, and reassure her about his happiness.
Laurence discovers that the training master at Loch Laggan is an unharnessed dragon, Celeritas. Manners and habit hide his initial shock, and after that he accepts the idea with little difficulty.
Difficulty arises instead with the aviators. Lieutenant John Granby is initially friendly but becomes very rude out of loyalty to Dayes, the Lieutenant rejected by Temeraire. Laurence also offends many of the ground crew by insisting that Temeraire not be harnessed when on the ground, for his comfort, and by strongly hinting that someone should attend to a neglected courier dragon, Levitas. He does make the pleasant acquaintance of young (apparent) boys who serve as “runners,” and of Hollin, a ground crew member who volunteers to help Levitas.
Laurence meets more people:
- Captain Berkley of Maximus, who is rather abrupt but not hostile;
- Captain Jeremy Rankin, whose manners are more formal than other aviators’ and therefore is a more comfortable acquaintance to Laurence, but who is later revealed to be Levitas’s neglectful captain;
- Captain Catherine Harcourt of Lily, whose existence is a surprise, but who Laurence (mostly) manages to treat as a fellow officer; and
- officially, Emily Roland, the runner he was most impressed with previously (and thought was a boy).
Laurence and Temeraire train with Berkley and Maximus (a Regal Copper, a heavyweight breed), so that they can join Lily’s formation: Lily is a Longwing, a breed that spits acid and will only accept women as captains. Laurence takes a short break for a trip to Edinburgh, where he buys Temeraire an extravagant pendant.
At the end of weeks of rigorous training, Temeraire and Maximus are called on to physically support an injured dragon, Victoriatus, as he flies to Loch Laggan.
Temeraire arrives first, and Victoriatus unintentionally claws him, injuring him and nearly severing the harness that all the humans attach to. Laurence stops the harness from breaking, but comes close to sliding to his death; Temeraire is ready to save Laurence at the cost of the lives of Victoriatus and Victoriatus’s crew. Granby saves Laurence, then Maximus arrives and the rest of the trip is merely exhausting instead of terrifying.
When they return, Celeritas tells them that they will join Lily’s formation when Temeraire has recovered from his minor injuries. Temeraire’s ground crew will be led by Hollin, and the aerial crew will be led by Granby, whose opinion of Laurence changed for the better after witnessing Laurence’s bravery.
Rankin is furious when he discovers that Laurence has been nice to Levitas, and Celeritas is obligated to order Laurence to stop.
Temeraire and Laurence learn to fly in formation and, with the after-hours help of the crew, develop maneuvers that take advantage of Temeraire’s unusual flying abilities. Laurence begins to feel a sense of camaraderie with, and acceptance by, the aviators.
A new heavyweight dragon arrives at the covert, Praecursoris, captained by Choiseul, a French officer who fled to Austria during the French Revolution; they have fled again because Napoleon intends to demand their surrender from Austria.
At the end of the chapter, Celeritas sends Lily’s formation to the Channel to replace a more experienced Longwing formation: the Corps must send support to Nelson at Cadiz, Spain, where the French fleet under Villeneuve has been caught and penned up (along with the Spanish fleet).
I love Novik’s action scenes. They’re great competence porn, they develop character (Laurence being quick to act and the first to recover his wits; Temeraire ready to sacrifice dozens of lives for Laurence’s), and they’re simply thrilling. I love training sequences, too, don’t get me wrong—there’s something very satisfying about watching characters learn how to do stuff—but the rescue of Victoriatus is a canny change of pace at this point in the novel. I didn’t find the earlier parts boring, because Laurence adjusting to his new life was plenty to keep me engaged, but I can see that tastes would easily vary on that.
This whole second part is pointing the knowledgeable reader toward the Battle of Trafalgar, from the very start of Chapter 4, where Laurence tells us that Nelson is trying to lure the French fleet out of Toulon. Throughout the chapters, we get breadcrumbs that match our history: in Chapter 6, we hear that the French have slipped away from Toulon, and in Chapter 7, Laurence relays news from Riley (his former second lieutenant in the Navy, who was indeed given command of the Reliant) that Nelson has chased Villeneuve across the Atlantic. This of course leads up to the Chapter 8 news that the French fleet has been trapped at Cadiz—but even as Novik gives us the expectation of Trafalgar, she underlines the reason why the French fleet is feared, that it will let Napoleon cross the Channel with an army. And both of those things will pay off at the end of the novel.
This part also develops a bit more of the history, abilities, and cultural norms around dragons, particularly in Britain. Different British breeds are mentioned—rare heavy-weight Regal Coppers, acid-spitting Longwings, maneuverable Anglewings, mid-sized Yellow Reapers, and small fast Winchesters and Greylings. We learn that dragons absorb language through the shell (which of course makes sense, but when I first read this, I hadn’t bothered to wonder how Temeraire hatched speaking perfect English), and that they have a very short period to sexual maturity: Temeraire sprouts a ruff and tendrils in Chapter 8, the latter of which are erogenous zones (as Laurence is mortified to inadvertently discover).
And, of course, we learn about female aviators. I love that they exist, naturally, but when I first read the book, it seemed improbable that the entire breed of Longwings would only accept female captains, and thus it felt a bit too obvious a contrivance. This time around, I theorized that Longwings don’t have an innate preference, that very early on, some smart woman befriended one before hatching and then saw the chance to create opportunities for other women, which leads Longwings to be socialized in the shell into thinking they have a preference. Unfortunately, this theory is contradicted by Throne of Jade, where Granby says, “We used to lose Longwings by the dozen, until Queen Elizabeth had the bright idea of setting her serving-maid to one and we found they would take to girls like lambs, and then it turned out the Xenicas would, too.” (Chapter 13; also that is literally the only mention of Xenicas in the entire eight books to date, at least if my ebooks can be trusted, so don’t ask me.) So I guess this is just another thing I have to shrug and accept.
Regardless, Harcourt, Emily Roland, and later Jane Roland are excellent characters and I’m glad to have them. Harcourt also illustrates how Laurence’s habits of thought are still part naval: his sense of military duty causes him to treat her as a fellow officer, but he doesn’t recognize that when Rankin (boo hiss) constantly makes her uncomfortable, Rankin is demonstrating that he’s out of touch with aviator attitudes generally. We also get introduced to the concept of multi-generational aviator families, when Celeritas tells Laurence (in Chapter 8) that Rankin’s father and grandfather both served with him, though Laurence doesn’t make the leap to Emily Roland being part of such a family.
Other history tidbits, since they wouldn’t fit in the summaries:
- Sir Francis Drake destroyed the Spanish Armada with a dragon named Conflagratia (the name suggests a fire-breather, and I see that in our history, fireships were used against the Armada, but the faux-academic material excerpted at the end of this book says that Britain never had fire-breathers).
- Sir Edward Howe’s “volume of dragon stories from the Orient” includes stories of:
- “the Yellow Emperor of China, the first Celestial dragon, on whose advice the Han dynasty had been founded”;
- “the Japanese dragon Raiden, who had driven the armada of Kublai Khan away from the island nation”; and
- “Xiao Sheng, the emperor’s minister, who swallowed a pearl from a dragon’s treasury and became a dragon himself” (I’ve found a couple English-language retellings of similar stories, which tend toward a kid doing the swallowing, but don’t have the research chops or access to find scholarly discussion of its origins).
- There are still a few pirate ships or dragon-crews in the Caribbean, but real piracy there is over.
Finally, Part II lays groundwork for personal conflicts to come. On a small note, when Laurence stops at his home, he meets Bertram Woolvey, Edith’s future husband; Woolvey’s uninformed enthusiasm over military matters will reappear when he does.
More broadly, the foundation continues to be laid for the ongoing tensions of Laurence and Temeraire’s relationship. In Chapter 4, while on the way to Loch Laggan, Temeraire doesn’t understand why Laurence considers the both of them subject to the King’s orders, and Laurence finds it “sadly puzzling to have to work out explanations for what to him seemed natural and obvious.” In response, Laurence jokingly suggests that they turn pirate to feed Temeraire, which Temeraire finds very appealing. The question of obeying orders will consume much of the series, particularly from Empire of Ivory on; and in Tongues of Serpents, Laurence will decline the opportunity to become a privateer.
Finally, is anything more Laurence in a nutshell than this, from Chapter 4? “[H]e thought how little the rest of the world should matter to him when he was secure in the good opinion of those he valued most, and in the knowledge that he was doing his duty.”
PART III (Chapters 9-12)
On the way to Dover, Lily’s formation is attacked by French dragons. Temeraire defends Lily and saves her from a fatal wound, but Lily is still badly injured before Praecursoris (who was flying ahead of the formation) gets the British dragons organized again. The French dragons retreat at the arrival of Excidium, the Longwing stationed at the Channel. As Lily recovers, Laurence notices that Harcourt and Choiseul have become close.
At the covert, Laurence meets Jane Roland, Emily’s mother and captain of Excidium. They have a long conversation over a late meal, and Laurence is a bit shocked to hear that Jane is unmarried and that the Corps will also expect him to have children for Temeraire’s sake. (He is more shocked when she tells him she would offer to bear said children, but the timing is poor.)
Temeraire and Laurence visit the Channel Fleet, which is blockading the French port of Brest, with mail and dispatches. Laurence is told that “the French are busy as bees inland outside Cherbourg,” which must be preparations for the invasion. At dinner, Laurence realizes that rigid Naval custom can be unkind, and is furious when an acquaintance calls his new life “appalling.” In response to the reports of French activity, Admiral Lenton prepares to send Excidium to Cadiz.
Laurence has another late meal with Jane Roland, who asks him about Emily’s fitness for the Corps (she is relieved when he speaks highly of Emily) and then kisses him.
Excidium’s formation leaves for Cadiz; arriving safely, they immediately begin attacking the French and Spanish fleets, trying to drive them out.
While most are distracted celebrating this encouraging news, Choiseul takes Harcourt hostage and kills one of her crew, meaning to take Lily to Napoleon. Laurence and Temeraire hear Lily’s distress; Laurence gets Harcourt out of Choiseul’s grip, and Harcourt ends the fight with an iron bar to Choiseul’s head.
Choiseul agrees to talk on the condition that he not have to face Harcourt any more. He admits to Laurence that he has been working for Napoleon since he came from Austria, because he believes Napoleon’s victory is inevitable and feared for Praecursoris’s life. Choiseul was ordered to retrieve Temeraire’s egg, because it was a gift directly to Napoleon, but settled on abducting Lily now that Temeraire had hatched. Napoleon “desired [him] to urge the weakening of the covert here most particularly, to have as many sent south to the Mediterranean as could be arranged.”
The covert prepares for action, but nothing happens but the welcome news of the Battle of Trafalgar (which Nelson survives, barely). The next day, Choiseul is hanged, after convincing Praecursoris to go to Newfoundland. Temeraire, Maximum, and Lily (and their captains) are all very upset; they huddle for comfort and the dragons resolve to (a) not let their captains commit treason and (b) work together to rescue any captain who nevertheless is about to be executed.
Rankin manages to see what the French have been building inland: troop transports to be carried by dragons, capable of landing fifty thousand men in few hours. They all know the invasion must be coming soon, before the formations at Trafalgar return, but have a short period to prepare because the winds are unfavorable.
Through Hollin’s inexplicable absence, Laurence discovers that Levitas is dying from injuries he received escaping the French. Laurence drags Rankin out to say his goodbyes. Admiral Lenton tells Laurence that a Winchester is unexpectedly hatching, and Rankin will expect the opportunity even though he will see it as a step down; Laurence suggests Hollin instead, who is dazed and moved by the opportunity.
The next morning, the wind has shifted, and the Corps takes to the air. They are vastly outnumbered by the French dragons, and though they do some small damage—Lily kills one dragon with her acid, Granby boards and captures one of the dragons helping carry a transport, Maximus damages a transport on its landing—they all understand that they never had any real chance of stopping the invasion.
During a brief pause in the fighting, Temeraire understands that duty means that “we must still try, or we would be leaving our friends to fight without us,” and moves to attack another French dragon. He instinctively produces “a roar that was less sound than force, a terrible wave of noise so vast it seemed to distort the air before him,” which shatters the oncoming transport, to everyone’s shock. Temeraire severely damages two more transports—including the one carrying the French commanders—and the French retreat.
At a ball given in the aviators’ honor, Sir Edward Howe tells Laurence that Temeraire is not an Imperial but a Celestial, because the divine wind is exclusive to that breed. Because “the Celestials are given only to the Emperors themselves, or their nearest kin,” Sir Edward is concerned that the Chinese may take offense or demand Temeraire’s return, a concern that Temeraire dismisses out of hand.
The book includes some sketches of dragons (with humans for scale) by Sir Edward and excerpts from his writing, particularly regarding dragon breeds native to the British Isles and British breeding programs.
So that was exciting! The final battle, I mean, not the Epilogue or supplementary material. More, it showed two intertwined kinds of cleverness that will recur: Napoleon’s in using dragons, and the series’ in pursuing alternate lines of history. Lord Vincent’s statement quoted by a character in Chapter 11, “I don’t say they cannot come, but they cannot come by sea,” is reported in sources from our history; but it raises the question in this history of whether there is another way they can come. Then tweak history to suit: the French still lose at Trafalgar, but now it’s a feint to draw off British air support from the Channel (and Nelson is wounded by fire from a Spanish dragon, not killed by a bullet from a French soldier, setting up things for later books). Add some plausible details like the French dragons scattering the militia on the ground to make room for the transports to land, or the transports designed so that the front unhinges like a barn door for instant mass rifle-fire on landing, and things look very convincingly bleak indeed before Temeraire discovers the divine wind. (There is a hint of his ability previously: in Chapter 9, during the French ambush, Temeraire “roared so tremendously that his body vibrated with the force and Laurence’s ears ached.”)
Let’s talk about characters, starting with the existing ones. Choiseul, Praecursoris, and Harcourt, together with Levitas, continue to highlight the question of the responsibilities dragons have to their humans, and humans to their dragons, and both to their societies. And, of course, the dragons’ reaction to Choiseul’s execution gives the reader an additional assurance, when Laurence eventually does commit treason, that the dragons aren’t going to stand for his hanging. (Granted, his being the sole POV character to that point makes it pretty unlikely!) I am preemptively a bit sad that Harcourt will be fairly unlucky in her romantic interests, but like the rest of the aviators, she has a full life otherwise and hopefully will be just fine. And poor Levitas! Rankin reappears in Tongues of Serpents and I do not look forward to it at all. We do get to see Hollin again in multiple books, being happy on courier duty with his Elsie, at least.
New character: Jane Roland, who I enjoy and admire immensely. She’s extremely competent and unselfconsciously confident, and she lives life to the fullest: I’m delighted that she gets the recognition she deserves in later books. (Someone write me fic where she and Olivier Mira Armstrong meet for some reason? I am positive they would get along like a house on fire. Their enemies’, naturally.)
Speaking of women that Laurence has been involved with to one degree or another: we hear in the epilogue that Edith has married Bertram Woolvey. Which will also end badly; are there any romantic relationships that are going to end well by the close of the series? Well, not that aviators tend to deathless romance, but as far as we know, Granby and Little are still alive at the end of Blood of Tyrants, at least.
Some minor notes to end:
- If you like details, Temeraire is “not much smaller than the seventy-four-gun Agincourt” (Chapter 10), which was 176 feet long. (Edit: oops, that’s the wrong Agincourt, thanks to dadler in comments for pointing that out, and that Regal Coppers max out at ~120 feet.)
- Laurence’s naval experience proves useful throughout the book: he can advise Admiral Lenton about the capacity of the transports, for instance, and mentor Emily when she’s worried about Jane and Excidium. I also find it very funny when, as a remnant of his training, he can’t stand to see Jane packing sloppily and does it for her at the start of Chapter 11.
- Harcourt might be quieter than Jane, but she’s not meek; besides ending the fight with Choiseul, I love the anecdote of her fending off a jerk at a concert by “pour[ing] a pot of coffee into his lap,” because it was easier than getting up and having to rearrange her unfamiliar skirts “and anyway more like something a girl ought to do.”
That’s not everything about this book, but it is certainly more than enough. I enjoyed this vastly when I first read it, and I still do today. I look forward to hearing what you all think, and I’ll see you next week for Throne of Jade.
Kate Nepveu was born in South Korea and grew up in New England. She now lives in upstate New York where she is practicing law, raising a family, running Con or Bust, and (in theory) writing at Dreamwidth and her booklog.