TLDR: An enthralling historical fantasy series with a unique premise and consistently good writing, creating a story that’s incredibly immersive. It follows Captain Laurence, a Navy officer during the Napoleonic wars, who becomes the unwitting companion to a dragon, named for the famous ship, Temeraire. Character voice is resplendent throughout this series, particularly when Temeraire’s narration is added.
Series: Temeraire by Naomi Novik
Books: Temeraire, Throne of Jade, Black Powder War, Victory of Eagles, Tongues of Serpents, Crucible of Gold, Blood of Tyrants, League of Dragons
Synopsis: Captain Will Laurence has been at sea since he was just twelve years old; finding a warmer berth in Nelson’s navy than he enjoyed as the youngest, least important son of Lord Allendale.
After a skirmish with a French ship, Laurence finds himself in charge of a rare cargo: a dragon egg. When the newly-hatched dragon decides to imprint itself on the horrified captain, Laurence’s world falls apart. Gone is his golden future, as he is consigned to be the constant companion and trainer of the fighting dragon Temeraire…
Publisher: Harper Voyager
(Reading time: 8 mins)
Just so you know, this is a nine-book series, so this may be a lengthy review. I promise you the review (and, in fact, the series), is worth it.
So where to start? If you know Naomi Novik, you will be aware she writes many stories about dragons, such as Uprooted. I didn’t even know Temeraire to be a series until I stumbled across the first book, found myself intrigued, and well, here I am now. It quickly became one of my favourites. I’m already looking forward to the prospect of a reread in future, and I definitely had a few days of finishing-a-good-book nostalgia after the final one.
Temeraire is essentially about imagining dragons fought in the Napoleonic wars. A nice historical fiction/fantasy hybrid I cleverly like to call historical fantasy. And can I say it works excellently.
I’ve not read a much historical fiction, mostly because of my perception (probably incorrect), that they’re all about Tudor England, or whatever, (which is fine except I over-studied that at school). However, the addictiveness of this series is major. Novik captures the early 1800s perfectly, from the way characters speak to societal conventions, rather than supplanting today’s characteristics onto the 19th century. That’s not to say it’s a stiff book: there is a kind of dry, sarcastic humour suffused throughout, mainly on the part of the dragons, such as when Temeraire, the main dragon protagonist, hates on the government.
I’m nowhere close to an expert on what England looked like during the Napoleonic wars (and actually you don’t have to know any history to read these), therefore I can’t really speak to accuracy. Nonetheless, it rings of reality, meaning you are fully immersed. I find the overall tone of voice in a book is so much of what makes a great reading experience.
Take Laurence, for example. He’s the main character of the series, adopted into the dragon military, as it were, which is a role most society is quite averse to. He already disappointed his family by running away to join the Navy, and joining the Aerial Corps is another blow. (Sidenote: the summary kinda makes out that Laurence will be a jerk? He is Not).
Laurence’s hesitance excellently sets up the position of dragons and Corps in British society. I mean, look at this gem of a quote: “He dearly loved society; conversation, dancing and friendly whist were his favourite pursuits; and when he thought that he might never go to the opera again, he felt a very palpable urge to tip the laden cot out the windows.”
It’s a little dramatic, but Laurence is an incredibly dramatic character – like Shakespearean levels. Most of this is because he holds honour very highly. The only reason he joins the Corps is because he feels it is his duty, even where others might disagree. This commitment to doing good is his absolute driving morality, which makes him an endearing character; but I enjoy that he’s the only one like this. Most of the supporting cast have a looser idea of both duty and formality, and frequently give the impression of wanting to shake Laurence a bit and tell him to Chill. Out.
I won’t go too much into Temeraire’s character for avoiding spoilers, beyond that he’s an incredibly lovable dragon of a rare breed, who chooses to be harnessed by Laurence upon hatching. Temeraire is by no means the only dragon character in the book: there is a whole cast as funny and different as the humans, given more depth in later books when Temeraire gets a POV narration (and also starts to assert the plight of Dragon Rights).
One of my favourite characters is Tharkay, a kind of mysterious and solitary adventurer who first appears in Book 3. He pops up again later at, I have to say, exactly the right moment; which you could find a fault in, were it not so in line with his character. He provides an excellent foil for Laurence’s commitment to duty, and they both develop along parallel lines throughout.
Another favourite is Granby, who is a recurring character from Book 1. An aviator who at first dislikes Laurence for being from the Navy, he serves to display the exasperated voice for all of Laurence’s unnecessary heroics and also allows further insight into the dragon Corps community, which is a nice bit of worldbuilding here and there.
I really can’t overemphasise how lovely character building is throughout this series, especially because of the inclusion of notable historical figures, such as (obviously) Napoleon. They’re also suitably diverse.
That’s one of my favourite things about this series, actually: it always goes somewhere new. While Book 1 begins the story in England, the characters travel to the Chinese and Incan empires, and more. This not only makes for reading that is more exciting than a repeated setting, but serves to fully display the world as it was at that time.
It does not shy away from the horrific parts of history, such as the slave trade and Wilberforce’s campaign to abolish it in Britain, or the wars in Cape Town against European colonists. Although those events are not overly discussed, they’re not ignored, which really cements this in the historical fiction genre. There are also hints to other historical events, such as the Opium Wars, or Britain’s colonisation of India, from an angry Bengali dragon encountering British soldiers.
This seamless world building is really what I enjoy so much about these books. For every country or culture Laurence and Temeraire visit, Novik invents dragon customs for them all, which are different to how dragons are used in England and I thought was an excellent touch.
For Laurence and Temeraire, they’re essentially the aerial division of the military, who have a crew of people working on them to man guns and wave signals and many other carefully thought-out roles. Because of this, there’s always quite a long list of characters, but Novik doesn’t overwhelm you.
If you are thinking of reading this series, I would say that the first, Temeraire (also called His Majesty’s Dragon), is a pretty good indicator of whether or not you will enjoy them. I’d avoid the blurbs/summaries as they can be a bit spoilery, so you may miss the fun of a plot twist.
Each book is under 400 pages, with a few months of time between.
It’s hard to pick a favourite from all nine. Obviously, I love the first, because I think a series opener has to be of sufficiently excellent quality to get you to read eight further books. Probably my other favourites are Throne of Jade, Victory of Eagles and League of Dragons.
Captain William Laurence ran away to the Navy when he was twelve years old and has established a successful career. Except then a dragon hatchling takes a liking to him, and suddenly he finds himself thrust sideways from society and into the peculiar company of dragon handlers and their dragons.
I really enjoyed every moment of this book. It sets up the series nicely.
Not so long after Temeraire and Laurence have joined the aerial fight against Napoleon, they find themselves heading unexpectedly to China.
There are many great things about this sequel, mostly the fleshing out of things like Laurence and Temeraire’s relationship, background characters and China’s role as the country best at dragons.
Laurence and Temeraire are tasked with an urgent mission – collect a trio of dragon eggs from Istanbul.
There is a part set in Prussia towards the end of this book that I find less interesting, but the rest of the book moves at breakneck pace and there are cool new dragon characters, more than making up for it.
Something has happened to Britain’s dragons, and the search for a cure takes them to Cape Town.
This book brings back familiar characters from Book 1, as they’ve been somewhat neglected in the past two, while giving yet another opportunity to explore different dragon cultures through the Xhosa and Tswana people.
Laurence and Temeraire must fight Napoleon’s invasion to Britain.
Of all the books, this is probably the darkest for our narrators. However, it is an excellent story. Temeraire gets a POV narration, which is used to every advantage. Events in this book have continuous repercussions throughout the rest of the series.
Australia has no dragons – but that is about to change.
If I had to pick out the slowest moving book in this series, it would be this one. Probably that suits, because this takes place entirely in attempting to cross the Australian continent. But background characters receive more time in this book, and really shine.
Laurence and Temeraire must go to Brazil, and negotiate a treaty.
The story here achieves the perfect mix of old characters and settings for familiarity, alongside exciting new developments. Of all the books this has the weakest ending, but that is quickly assuaged by the opening of the next book.
Before heading back to Britain, Laurence and Temeraire have been invited to return to China, except disaster strikes…
The plot can feel a little convoluted at some points, but it’s all incredibly fun (apart from when it is the exact opposite of fun) and we get two more nations to visit – Japan and Russia! It doesn’t focus too much on finale build-up either.
Napoleon has a dragon army of thousands. Laurence and Temeraire do not.
Honestly, there are not many series I can say end as satisfactorily as this one does. Yes, this book culminates a long series, but the plot is also substantial enough on its own. Also, despite the war setting, the character focus makes it a really easy read.
Is it worth the read? Yes, and every book too!
Is it easy to read? I was hesitant within the first few pages, because of the language, but it’s really nothing major and more cosmetic than a barrier.