The third book I’ve finished this year, and it’s about dragons, too.
I’m starting to sense some kind of pattern here…
This book wasn’t new to me though; I absolutely adored Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series in highschool. His Majesty’s Dragon is the first instalment.
As soon as I received my new e-reader, I looked up digital copies of this series and downloaded it. Both as a comfortable first read on my new device and to indulge myself a little, I went back to the book that went:
“So, you know the Napoleonic wars, yeah? Now imagine it, but with dragons”.
Honestly, when does “but with dragons” ever not work out..?
His Majesty’s Dragon is categorized as a Historical Fantasy novel, and takes place in 1804, when naval Captain Will Laurence is unexpectedly chosen as the handler of a rare and valuable dragon for the British army. We follow Laurence as he and the dragon, whom he names Temeraire, train for battle against the French within the British Aerial Corps.
The term ‘Historical Fantasy’ is one that speaks to the imagination. That doesn’t mean that every fantasy story is Historical Fantasy, despite the fact that these books are very often set in a medieval-like world. Fantasy as a genre usually raises images of knights on horses, fighting dragons (how rude), wizards with long beards, you know the deal. Its setting is often vaguely medieval in the sense that it does not contain a lot of technological advancement, preferring some sort of magic system as a substitute and explanation for this lack.
There are Historical Fantasy stories about every time period, and every setting. The fun thing about these stories compared to the more ‘classic’ Tolkien-esque fantasy settings, is their larger emphasis on the questions ‘What if?’ and ‘How?!’
To fall back to Novik’s Temeraire: what if the Napoleonic wars were fought with an Aerial Corps of dragons, decked out with crews and ammunition like ships were at the time?
The fantasy element in relation to the history we know is integral to the plot, and what drives the story forward. The more accurate and logical the historic side is explained, the cooler the fact that the author also managed to write dragons in somehow.
Here be dragons
I always like it when dragons turn up in stories. Especially since nowadays, they’re no longer structurally horrible monsters, representations of big evil, or of capitalist greed. More and more, imaginings are published in which these majestic, horrible flying lizards can be considered as allies. While I always like it when Others or adversaries are turned into possible allies, there’s something I like even more about it.
The worldbuilding required to account for the absurdity of the situation.
Now I’m not silly: I know that any story with dragons in it will be a little absurd. That’s what is so great about fantasy in general. These elements emphasize a certain distance from the reader, which in turn makes it easier to critically consider societal and ethical issues the book addresses. Silently, while we’re distracted by all the dragons, it makes us think.
Worldbuilding is a term used to describe how the setting and situation of a story is presented to the reader. This concerns stuff like the political situation, customs and traditions of the people we follow, their values, their lore and their legends. It also encompasses the ‘rules’ regarding the magical elements introduced to us; can anyone use magic? If there’s dragons in the Napoleonic war, where did they come from? Where they always there, how did humankind survive if dragons actually were a thing?
Not everything has to be spelled out. Don’t you worry. But the way the world surrounding a story is explained is essential to our willingness to follow along: our suspension of disbelief.
Let’s get back to Novik’s book, before I get carried away. We’ll pick up on this later in another blog, I promise. But the reason why I wanted to talk about worldbuilding when covering this book is the fact that Novik did what I love most.
In the back of His Majesty’s Dragon, she put a large appendix consisting of another book. A book one of the characters in the novel wrote, which answers many questions most readers probably had after reading it. I love this kind of attention to detail, and the immersion that comes with it.
By making the exposition diegetic (i.e. part of the narrative world, instead of an explanation existing between narrator and reader) it is less arduous to read. As it constructs the world it exists in, it reinforces it simultaneously by confirming itself. It validates the actual book this imaginary book is a part of.
Also, it has these cool sketches.
So yeah! If you’re into fantasy, and would like something else than wizards with pointy hats and elves with pointy ears (A lot of pointies around in fantasy, now that I think about it), then definitely give the Temeraire series a go. It is exciting and well written.
Novik manages to show us how, when we are forced upon a path we did not choose nor expect, we can be surprised by our own happiness. Even if it might go against what we believe, be open to change. Change can be good.
Especially if that change is as delightful as that dragon Temeraire.