It took me a long time to get around to reading this, which is a shame, because it’s delightful. If you like historical fantasy at all, you’re almost certain to enjoy this book.
Will Laurence is a captain in His Majesty’s Navy at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, and it looks a lot like the Navy you’d see in a Patrick O’Brien book—all protocol and taking enemy ships for profit—until his ship captures a precious dragon egg and Laurence is sent off the Aerial Corps to be captain of the dragon instead. Dragons here are essentially flying, talking ships, which makes for some entertaining battle scenes and opens up room for an imaginative alternate world.
The plot is entertaining—not action-packed: there’s a lot of training, and a lot about Laurence’s adjustment to the Aerial Corps, which is much more casual and modern than he’s used to (there are even *gasp* women in it!)—but fun; I was rooting for Laurence and his dragon, Temeraire, and enjoyed the story throughout. The characters are vivid and interesting, and I especially enjoyed Laurence’s struggle to adjust and the conflict between his respect for hierarchy and his discomfort with some of the ways things are done in the Corps. Creating such a stiff and formal protagonist is a risk, but Laurence works because at the same time he’s good-hearted and willing to adapt. Temeraire is also entertaining, breaking the typical dragon-companion mold (he likes books, for instance), and manages not to come across as a animal-companion wish-fulfillment fantasy, which is rare in this sort of book. I’ve read comments indicating there’s a lot of romance in the book, which baffle me—there isn’t, at least not in the sexual sense; the growing friendship between Laurence and Temeraire is at the heart of the story. Laurence’s apparent love interest is awesome, though, and I’d love to see more of her in future books.
Otherwise, the writing is good, the period details convincing and the fantasy elements well-integrated into the historical setting. Novik’s style hints at 19th century writing, while still being easy going for the modern reader. The secondary characters are endearing or obnoxious as the author intended, and feel real enough to set them apart from the typical fantasy extras. And Novik manages a modern, critical look at the British Empire without Laurence’s ever breaking character; he’s unthinkingly loyal, even while the narrative questions that devotion. Really, there’s no downside here, unless you’re leery of starting a long and unfinished series. But while there seem to be some long-running threads introduced (Laurence’s relationship with his father, for one), the book works well as a standalone.
This isn’t great literature, and I don’t expect to read it again. But I do intend to read the sequel, and I recommend this one to anyone looking for fun, high-quality fantasy.