Sunday, August 1, 2010

Temeraire love...

Have you read Naomi Novik's Temeraire books? Well, have you?

I just finished Throne of Jade, the second book in the series, which I bought on Kindle as soon as I finished the first volume, His Majesty's Dragon, and if I had a bit more spare cash I'd already have bought all of the others in the series.

Yes, they were that good.

First, the basics. The series is set during the Napoleonic wars, and focuses on one Englishman, Captain Martin Laurence, and his dragon, Temeraire. Of course, that reveals the big twist here--this is a history of a rather tumultuous time in European history...with dragons. Lots of them, of all shapes and sizes, and the difference adds a lot to the power of the story.

The Napoleonic wars took place at the beginning of the 19th century, and engulfed Europe in a series of wars that left millions dead. Throwing dragons into the mix seems almost unnecessary, as the true story itself is the stuff of fantasy. A single man, starting life as a lowly artillery corporal, rising to found an empire, overthrow republics and turn all of the continent of Europe into a battlefield...seriously, it's more than a little epic.

In writing about Laurence and his dragon, Novik succeeds in making the backdrop of these conflicts a stage for truly engaging adventure on a smaller, more personal scale, as well as giving opportunities for conversations about issues as difficult and timely as slavery and racism, intercultural conflict and the place of the individual in the sweeping events of history. The role of dragons in the European war is thrown into question as Temeraire discovers the evil of slavery, and sees the place that dragons hold in societies outside his own Britain, where dragons are seen as a kind of necessary evil, vicious brutes tamed for the use of men but still viewed with fear and suspicion, and kept isolated except in the performance of their duties at e behest of their masters.

I've yet to finish the series, but already I can see a politicization of the dragons in the outing--parallels with African slavery has already started to surface, and as Laurence himself has abolitionist leanings, it is inevitable that the series would treat this issue. In addition, a trip to China reveals an alternative to Temeraire, one where dragons are equal members of society with their own money, creative roles (dragon poetry, etc.) and most importunely, respect. It'll be futo see how Novik explores this issue more deeply in e future books.

But, really, these stories are just fun. The characters are brilliantly painted, as lifelike and believable as any I've seen in fiction. They grow and breathe, live and die and wear their histories like skin. Rarely have I been so moved to care about fictional characters, some of them not even human, as I have in these books. The action scenes, as believable as they are exciting, are drenched in glory as well as blood (nothing gory, but not exactly flinching at the ugly side of war). The political intrigue is engaging while not taking over the story, and in these first two volumes seems to be buoying toward something truly deep. Honestly, I've not had as much fun reading fantasy OR history books in a while.

Big big thumbs up...

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