A Facebook friend recommended these books to me a while ago. I’ve read the first four books, and am about to start book 5. Rather than give a review of each tome, I’d like to offer a comprehensive review of books 1-4.
The “Temeraire” series, by Naomi Novik, takes its name from one of the main characters – who happens to be a dragon. This historical fantasy series is based on the premise that dragons exist as a real, natural species, just like elephants or horses, with the main difference being that dragons are rational beings. They are employed in European armies as an air force, manned by crews of men and women analogous to the crew of a ship. That is the extent of the fantasy content; the rest is historical fiction, re-imagining the era of the Napoleonic wars with this one addition. No magic, no dwarves, no elves, no monsters, no mythical named weapons, no prophecies – just dragons.
In this way, the series is more like the “Dragonriders of Pern” series (by Anne McCaffrey) than the “Eragon” books or most popular fantasy novels that I’ve read. It is definitely not the same genre as “Harry Potter”, and not only because of the lack of magic; it also is aimed at a more mature audience. The protagonists are adults, and – as my friend pointed out when she recommended the series to me – they act like adults.
I found myself enjoying these books right from the start, and as far as I am concerned, the quality of the series has been maintained (if not improved) throughout, at least up to and including book 4. I hope it holds true for the remaining books of the series – a feat that some series have not managed, such as the aforementioned “Dragonriders of Pern”, which in my opinion deteriorated considerably towards the end. It probably helps that this series seems to have been planned as such, in contrast to others like the Dune series, whose quality declined precipitously after the original masterpiece, growing sequel by sequel in response to economic success.
As far as the writing style goes, I am not a professional literary critic, but I find it consistent, intelligent, and well paced. The characters are multi-dimensional and likable; they are not caricatures or stereotypes. For a book with dragons, some people might be surprised at fairly long periods without much action, but they are not wasted pages; there is character development and also reflection on some fairly serious moral, social, philosophical and theological questions. Content-wise, one of the things I most enjoy is that the author has obviously done her homework and made a serious effort to be true to the historical period as much as possible within the premise of the books. I am no expert on the Napoleonic Wars, but I am familiar with some aspects of the intellectual history of the time, and I have been consistently impressed with the way Novik works in questions such as the biological categorization of the dragons, the question of their intelligence and its implications for society and religion, etc. In “Empire of Ivory” she even has the dragons independently “inventing” non-Euclidean geometry, which is historically appropriate for the time. I used to teach philosophy of science and dealt with this topic in class, so when she brought this into the narrative, she won serious points in my book!
As for the moral content of the series, it is mostly very good. The only aspect with which I would take issue is the protagonist’s ongoing sexual relationship outside of marriage. However, there is no explicit sexual content, and the fact is that such relationships are rather common today and would fit in the context she is describing. So, while it would be more edifying if Novik had portrayed the protagonist as marrying his lover, this is (relatively speaking) a minor issue. She does not make a big deal of it, and I don’t want to either. The characters present many other virtues such as loyalty, justice, honesty, and compassion, in many contexts.
Regarding religion, I have been pleasantly surprised so far. While religion does not generally play an important role in the books, many of the characters are portrayed as being at least culturally or nominally Christian (as would be historically accurate) and religious belief is treated even-handedly. It seems that many serious fantasy and sci-fi authors feel obliged to ignore religion, or deal with it patronizingly, if not derisively. That is not the case here. Although she doesn’t go into great depth nor attempt to provide definitive answers, she does raise theological questions in an intelligent way – namely, whether or not dragons as intelligent beings would have souls, and if so, if they would suffer from original sin. A fairly superficial answer is given to the latter question, but it is reasonably consistent with the theological outlook of the character who gives it. Again, I was impressed by the fact that she raises these questions at all, let alone in the fairly informed and neutral way that she does it.
So, to sum up: kudos to Naomi Novik, who is penning an imaginative, intelligent, exciting, and thought-provoking series with depth and likable characters. I would certainly recommend it.
The series currently includes:
His Majesty’s Dragon (2006) / Temeraire (UK)
Throne of Jade (2006)
Black Powder War (2006)
Empire of Ivory (2007)
Victory of Eagles (2008)
Tongues of Serpents (2010)
list with dates taken from Wikipedia