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

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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.)

NEXT: Bonnie Snyder (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) Guest-Blogging About "Undoctrinate" ...

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  1. Now we know why you’ve been so silent the last few days.

    1. I also enjoyed the series, although I think I dropped out before the final volumes. There is, however, at least one serious fault in the worldbuilding.

      The story assumes that Europe is essentially the same as in our history, that the existence of dragons has affected nothing important over past centuries. I’m willing to accept that as necessary for the story she wants to tell, however implausible. But she then totally drops that assumption for all other parts of the world. One unreasonable assumption to make the story work I am willing to put up with, but two are pushing it.

  2. 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.

    For what it’s worth, the politics were what led me to give up on the first one midway through when a I tried it a few years back (probably the last time you recommended it here, actually). I loved Napoleonic Wars fiction (Sharpe, Hornblower, Aubrey/Maturin, etc.) when I was younger so it seemed like a good fit. But I guess I’ve become a radicalized republican since then, and a bunch of monarchists slaughtering each other for loot just doesn’t interest me the same way it used to. I don’t mind it if it’s presented in a more traditional high fantasy context, particularly if it’s done cynically (e.g. George R.R. Martin), but the tone of these books, and a historical context where real republics actually existed, just didn’t do it for me.

    1. Well, the Great Powers of the era were monarchies, and the one to which the main characters owed loyalty (England) was actually the most republican (and most liberal, with a small “l”) of the lot, though of course still with sharp class boundaries and a limited franchise.

      But it’s true: I’ve always admired Industrial-Revolution-era England, and I suppose that made it especially easy for me to bond with the human characters, who were loyal Englishmen.

      1. Was a typical subject in Regency England (and I’ll call it that to avoid the issues involving the treatment of Scotland and Ireland) more free than someone in Napoleonic France? I’m dubious that there’s much distinction I think the republican contest is also pretty much a wash—as I recall, in France there was a fairly broad franchise for “electoral colleges” that didn’t have a ton of power, while English members of parliament had a fair amount of power, but only 1% of the population was allowed to vote. To the extent either system has republican attributes, it doesn’t really move the needle for me to be invested over which regime should, say, be able to choose the puppet king of the Netherlands or Denmark.

        To be sure, Regency England was far more liberal than, say, Bourbon Spain or Tsarist Russia. But the most authoritarian regimes in Europe were, by and large, the ones that England was trying to defend against Napoleon, whose influence on them strikes me as pretty unquestionably liberalizing.

        Just my thoughts, of course, and shouldn’t detract from anyone else’s enjoyment. But if I’m going to read a series combining early 19th century military history with fantasy, guess I’d be happier reading about Oliver Hazard Perry the wizard or Andrew Jackson the werewolf or whatever.

        1. How about Earl Warren, the male stripper?

          1. Sure! I’d also be happy to read about Nelson Mandela the 800 year old demigod.

        2. “more free than someone in Napoleonic France?”

          Napoleon was an absolute dictator, so I’d say the weak limits on the English monarchy were an improvement.

          1. That doesn’t answer the question of how free the 90% majority were, the peasant farmers.

            1. I’m not tracking. In an absolute dictatorship the common man (and indeed everyone other than El Supremo) has zero rights. In a constitutional monarchy, the common man has some rights – to speech or to a jury trial for example.

              Perhaps you are making the point that Napoleon was a benevolent dictator, and so in practical terms the people under his rule were better off than the English common man?

              If so, I’m not sure I buy that. Sure, the metric system is neat, but Napoleon started wars that were pretty costly:

              “The effect of the war on France over this time period was considerable. Estimates of the total French losses during the wars vary from 500,000 to 3 million dead.[1] According to David Gates, the Napoleonic Wars cost France at least 916,000 men from 1803 to 1815. This represents 38% of the conscription class of 1790–1795. This rate is over 14% higher than the losses suffered by the same generation one hundred years later fighting Imperial Germany.[6] The French population suffered long-term effects through a low male-to-female population ratio. At the beginning of the Revolution, the numbers of males to females was virtually identical. By the end of the conflict only 0.857 males remained for every female.[7] Combined with new agrarian laws under the Napoleonic Empire that required landowners to divide their lands to all their sons rather than the first born, France’s population never recovered. By the middle of the 19th century France had lost its demographic superiority over Germany and Austria and the United Kingdom.”

              1. Napoleon was a dictator, but he also implemented relatively liberal civil institutions (including jury trials, for what it’s worth) and reduced or abolished the privileges of the aristocracy. No, you couldn’t file 1983 suit against him or anything, but his rule certainly created a more egalitarian, meritocratic society. He also (forcibly, of course) implemented those reforms in the countries he conquered. “Liberal” Britain, on the other hand, is the country that we revolted against—ruled by an oligarchy of hereditary nobles and their sycophants, willing to declare all-out war to defend some of the world’s most oppressive despots, and protected by an army of aristocrats who purchased their commissions and regularly tortured their own soldiers to death.

                Monroe had the right idea, in my book.

                1. Napoleon was a megalomaniac who invaded his neighbors for his own aggrandizement. French troops lived off the land in e.g. Spain, and eff the peasants whose food they took. It wasn’t the Spanish or Portuguese aristocracy fighting off freedom-bringing Napoleon, it was the Spanish and Portuguese peasants who got to experience the wonders of Napoleon’s rule first hand and would rather die than submit to it.

                  I mean, Hitler built the autobahns and Mussolini made the trains run on time, but that doesn’t make up for the sins of starting wars in which multitudes died.

        3. Was a typical subject in Regency England … more free than someone in Napoleonic France?

          Well, they were certainly less likely to be conscripted to go die in some foreign land for their emperor’s glory, so I’ll go with yes.

          1. While the British army was at least nominally a volunteer force, the Royal Navy had no issue with conscripting sailors to fight and die for king and country (and, of course, wasn’t particularly scrupulous about making sure that the conscripts were actually British subjects first).

  3. I found the early volumes engaging as light entertainment, but the longer the series went on, the more obtrusively clear it became that basic elements of Novik’s worldbuilding didn’t work. The amount of resources needed to maintain all those dragons would quickly have overwhelmed the agrarian economies that supposedly supported them, and every time Novik wrote about the difficulties of maintaining dragons in the field, she highlighted the problem. It was like reading a novel where a modern industrial economy based on whale oil rather than petroleum, and yet somehow whales thrived in the wild.

    1. Judge Magney: I wonder whether that’s quite right — from a functional perspective, the dragons seemed to be deliberately analogized to ships (though, as with ships, of varying sizes). Appallingly expensive to maintain, to be sure, but a necessary tool for any Great Power, and even more necessary given that even relatively landlocked nations need air forces, even if they don’t need large naval forces.

      1. Dragons begging for freedom and rights.

        Reminds me of people wondering if aliens have souls, when they should be praying aliens think humans have souls.

    2. In GOT when Sansa asked Danny ‘what do dragons eat anyway’ Danny replied ‘what ever they want’.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wz8Csv9Mx6Q

  4. “Serving military officers in the British military, who are after all people of their own time embedded in a highly conservative institution”

    Preserving the three essential naval traditions, eh?

    1. I wonder if that one is is the new Yale Book of Quotations? I am pretty sure it really was Winston Churchill.

      1. Google says it’s in the new Yale book, but without full page view I can’t get the details.

        1. It looks like he did say it, but that similar sentiments had been uttered by others previously.

  5. I liked the first half of the series and strongly agree that it was “Horatio Hornblower! With Dragons!”

    I started losing my enthusiasm for the series during the “international” adventures. Being consigned to then rescued from the Australian outback seemed more like a filler than a cogent part of the larger story. The diversion to China and the ‘awakening’ to rights seemed similarly contrived.

  6. Dragons? I guess you can’t take the boy out of the man.

    1. Why would I want to?

  7. You had me until you said “dragons”. I love good Scifi, but I just can’t stomach Fantasy.

    1. My distaste for fantasy is that the rules are unknown to everybody, including the author, and only made up and disclosed as it furthers the plot. If the only real fantasy here is the existence of dragons, it might be interesting without being aggravating. I bought the first kindle book and will give it a try. I am not expecting Robert Forward.

      1. Á àß äẞç ãþÇđ âÞ¢Đæ ǎB€Ðëf ảhf: It is indeed nonmagical fantasy — there is a nonscientific change to our world, but it’s pretty clearly specified. The dragons lack mystical powers; they are just a life-form that doesn’t currently exist in our world (and is too heavy to fly under our general understanding of physics, chemistry, and biology).

  8. I enjoy her writing, and started plowing through this series. Enjoyable but I burnt out around book five or six. It started feeling repetitive and cheesy.
    I really liked Spinning Silver for some reason. Not my usual reading material but I liked it.

    1. I liked all the books, but six and seven were the least interesting — they seemed to be travel adventures that weren’t closely tied to the overall arc of the series. Eight and nine, however, bring things back to Europe and to the war, and, as I mentioned, nine is very good.

    2. I thought _Spinning Silver_ was extraordinarily good. Reading it persuaded me that I ought to be reading more fiction, so I did.

      The dragon books, though pretty good, did not have that effect on me.

  9. Like some of the previous commenters, I enjoyed the first book or two but burned out somewhere around book five. Partly, as commented on above, the foreign expeditions didn’t hold my interest. Partly because an appeal of fantasy is the world-building, and, once the world has been mostly built, the marginal value of further volumes is lower, so one moves on to other books.

  10. I prefer my Hornblower without dragons.

    1. How many prostitutes does it take to blow a horn?

  11. “Steady as she goes, Mr. Bush…splice the mainbrace, haul that topsail, tote that barge, lift that bale…arrh!”

  12. I enjoyed the series overall, but liked the early books better.

  13. I thought the first book in the series was OK (but not much better). It’s been long enough since I read it that I don’t remember much more than that.

    If I’m going to read a fantastic take on Hornblower, I prefer the A. Bertram Chandler Commodore Grimes series (science fiction), which has the advantage of having been written by a career merchant marine officer, so the “naval” bits feel quite realistic.

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