The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Horatio Hornblower, With Dragons: Naomi Novik's Temeraire Series


I just reread Victory of Eagles, one of my favorite books in Naomi Novik's excellent nine-book Temeraire series, and thought I'd briefly blog again about how much I like them. The books are set in about 1800, in our own world, with one exception: There are dragons; they're sapient (and indeed some are highly intelligent); and, if raised by a human from hatching, they bond closely to the human—which of course means that the world's militaries have air forces full of human-crewed dragons. The hero, William Laurence, is a naval captain who by accident becomes the captain of a dragon whom he names Temeraire (after the ship).

To make the concept work of course requires good world-building (to use the standard SF/fantasy label), but the heart of the series are the relationships among the characters: foremost, of course, between Laurence and Temeraire, but also among others, human and dragon. It helps the richness of the relationships that one element of the world-building is that one military significant breed of dragons will only accept women as captains (why not?); imagine how circa 1800 England would try to deal with that.

I suppose part of why I liked the books is that their politics strike me as appealing: One might label it loosely libertarian and egalitarian yet coupled with a sense of patriotic duty, in a way one sees in much English and American political rhetoric of the era. They might perhaps be labeled somewhat Heinleinesque, though the writing and characterization strikes me as much better than Heinlein's. The dragons want freedom and equal rights, including the right to go into business and make money. (True to traditional characterizations of dragons, they like their wealth, especially if it's shiny; but the whole tone is, why shouldn't they?)

There is also something of an anti-slavery backstory, which fits well with the historical background, since this was an era with an active anti-slavery movement. Plus in Novik's world the Western powers can't roll over various non-Western societies as easily as they did in the real world, since the ubiquity of dragons makes the West's technological and organizational advantages less significant. But that too works for me: I don't condemn the Western powers of the 1500s to 1800s for their conquests, which stemmed from the West becoming better at doing what lots of cultures had been trying to do for millennia (and sometimes did very effectively to the West, e.g., the Arabs, Mongols, and Turks), but it's interesting to imagine a world in which matters were more balanced.

At the same time the politics is mostly quiet, and consistent with the story: The women officers, for instance, obviously cherish their independence, and seek the honors and recognition to which their accomplishments entitle them (what officers wouldn't?), but they also don't seek to copy gender roles from 2000 for all of British society. Serving military officers in the British military, who are after all people of their own time embedded in a highly conservative institution, seem unlikely to be interested in radical social reform, except perhaps where necessity demands it. In any event, I expect that very few people would be turned off by the political subthreads, and some might find them interesting (partly because it would be hard to tell a nine-book story about sapient dragons in 1800 England without discussing social and political structures).

More broadly, the politics is integral to the relationships. The central thread in all the stories, and especially in the development both of of the lead characters (the man and the dragon), is reconciling the often conflicting demands of duty, honor, justice, love, and loyalty. That's hardly new, of course; but Novik deals with it subtly and deftly, with new layers slowly added as the series progresses.

The books are written for adults, but my then-10-year-old son much enjoyed the first book—not enough to keep reading the whole series, but nine books might have been a bit daunting for a 10-year-old. There's certainly plenty of violence, but no more than to be expected from what is after all a series set against the backdrop of war and the military. (Horatio Hornblower! With Dragons!) There are also references to sex; they aren't explicit, but they may be hard to fully understand for a child who doesn't understand that adults have sex, that this has certain possible consequences, and that it was perceived in a particular way in 1800 Europe.

The writing also has a deliberately somewhat archaic cadence, somewhat Jane-Austen-esque, I suppose, but my sense is that it's still quite accessible even for children. I also expect that girls might find the women captain characters interesting, though men do get most of the screen time, as it were (or at least of the human screen time).

My favorite books are the first, His Majesty's Dragon, the fifth, Victory of Eagles, and the ninth, League of Dragons; but all are worth reading, and even worth rereading. If you've read them and have your own views, please say something in the comments. (I plan on having a separate thread soon for other reader recommendations.)