When in comes to books about fantasy and high adventure, it's hard not to consider a possible movie adaptation to follow. (Sometimes readers imagine the movie as they're reading.) Not Catharine Charlesworth. She takes a look at Naomi Novik's epic adventure featuring dragons and only gives a passing glimpse at Tinseltown.
Well, what about dragons?
At first, this idea conjures up unsettling memories of unfortunately gimmicky dragon movies (I’m looking at you, Reign of Fire). The notion of playing this premise straight would seem even more outlandish, but Naomi Novik's His Majesty’s Dragon does just that – and does it well. Trying to weave the iconic fantasy beasts into such well-trodden literary ground seems a gutsy choice for a first novel, but Novik has managed: first published in 2005, it is the first book in the Temeraire series, which has now reached six novels and will last for at least seven. While perhaps not the most challenging read, the novel still manages to pose enough questions and provide enough seafaring fun to please both fans of the fantastic and historical fiction buffs with a quirky imagination.
His Majesty’s Dragon introduces Will Laurence, a Captain in the British Navy. When his ship captures a dragon’s egg from a French vessel, Laurence watches it hatch into Temeraire, a black dragon with both a hunger for battle and a curious intellect. The pair gets recruited into the Aerial Corps, a military division where each of the massive winged beasts are crewed by several avaitors, and take to the skies in combat with Napoleon’s fleet.
|His Majesty's Aerial Corps|
In both premise and execution the series starts off well, though perhaps taking itself a little too seriously out of the gate. With each new book, Novik’s writing grows more confident and more compelling, however, and she’s clearly developing as a writer. Her engagement with the time period evokes memories of Patrick O’Brien or C.S. Forester, though Novik’s novels have a somewhat lighter tone and, unfortunately, characters that don’t quite feel as nuanced. They still kept me interested, however, and it would seem I’m not alone: in 2006, Peter Jackson purchased the film rights. One of the highlights of His Majesty’s Dragon comes in its viscerally exciting battle scenes, and I’ll be honest: the idea of a massive sea-to-sky battle on the big screen has me reaching for both my popcorn and (with much less enthusiasm) my wallet.
I wonder if Hollywood might suspect this.
Well, whether a blockbuster movie franchise comes of it or not (Jackson has more recently hinted at the possibility of adapting it for a large-budget television miniseries), His Majesty’s Dragon and the Temeraire series succeed easily on their own merit. It’s an adventure with some excellent historical thrills, a fantastical edge, and a keen authorial voice that had me devouring several volumes at a stretch. When the next one lands, I’ll happy forgo the popcorn, more than satisfied with a comfy chair and a good book.
- originally published on January 11, 2012 in Critics at Large.