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Hornblower with dragons
on 14 November 2009
Set in an alternate history where dragons are a vital weapon in military conflicts, Captain William Laurence's life changes forever after he finds an egg on board a captured French frigate. The egg hatches into a dragon named Temeraire who will only accept Laurence as its rider. Duty compels Laurence to leave the Navy, give up any chance of having a family and join the Aerial Corps where he must adjust to life with an inquisitive, fiercely intelligent dragon and the less formal structure of the Corps, which allows women in its ranks and even has a dragon instructor. As Laurence slowly forms friendships with Captain Roland (a scarred female captain and mother to one of the Corps' cadets) and Hollin (a member of Temeraire's ground crew), England is threatened by the superior numbers of Napoleon's dragon forces and soon Laurence and Temeraire find themselves playing a key role in the country's defence.
There is much to enjoy in this book. The concept of using dragons as aeronautical ships (complete with crews and gunmen latched on with harnesses) is well depicted and Novik's aeronautical battles are vivid and exciting. Also well handled is the relationship between Laurence and Temeraire, the latter having a child-like quality without ever falling into tweeness. In fact the only jarring note is Laurence's constant use of "my dear" when addressing Temeraire, a form of address that doesn't quite ring true.
Unfortunately, the other relationships in the book lack the same depth and there is little real story beyond the relationship between master and dragon. For example, a storyline establishing Laurence's romantic understanding with Edith is dispensed with in a cursory fashion, while the arrival of a French rider called Choiseul plays out in too predictable a manner. The only sub-plot that holds any punch involves Rankin, a captain who deprives his dragon Levitas of love and kindness and who comes into conflict with Laurence as a result.
Novik's writing style apes 19th century literary style and her research creates an authentic period feel. However there's some serious semi-colon abuse in the opening half of the book, which frequently threw me out of the text and at times the descriptions of all the types of dragon was confusing.
The book ends with a set-up for the next in the series, and there's enough enjoyment to be derived from the story for me to read on.