A Tale of Dragons Burns Out

Review: Naomi Novik, ‘League of Dragons’

Naomi Novik
Naomi Novik / Wikimedia Commons
July 23, 2016

It’s odd, isn’t it, that the Napoleonic Wars should be the setting for two of the cleverest creations in modern genre fiction? Some earlier genre fiction had been set in the era, of course, from the comic stories about Brigadier Gerard (which Arthur Conan Doyle began writing in the 1890s) to the sea sagas of Horatio Hornblower (which C.S. Forester began in the 1930s) and on to the military adventures of the British soldier Richard Sharpe (which Bernard Cornwell began in the 1980s). Still, nothing obvious about the beginning of the nineteenth century demands that the Napoleonic Wars be revisited by authors attempting major turns in genre fiction.

Nonetheless, with Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series (published from 1969 to 2004) and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (published in 2004), the sea tale and the historical fantasy novel received complete makeovers. The books were brilliantly constructed, historically precise, and so profoundly influential that dozens of other writers in the years since have tried to replicate their success—like fleas pretending to be dogs. From the space adventures of Daniel Leary and Adele Mundy in David Drake’s sci-fi RCN series to Naomi J. Williams’s account of exploration in last summer’s Landfalls, book after book has tried to recreate the partnership that O’Brian chronicled and the rich historical detail that Clarke conveyed.

Unfortunately, to succeed, the authors would have to write extremely well—and perhaps it’s not surprising that none of them do. Genre fiction tends to attract competent writers rather than path-breaking geniuses, and books like HMS Surprise or Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell are rare.

Even those books have predecessors, of course. Patrick O’Brian knew he was trying to perfect a sea-tale genre that C.S. Forester had defined (and such early Victorians as Frederick Marryat had invented). Susanna Clarke’s picture of a fantastical England where magic had survived to take the place of science was anticipated by others, notably by Randall Garrett with his Lord Darcy series in the 1960s and 1970s. But O’Brian and Clarke managed to work within the limits of their genres and nonetheless raise their writing to higher levels of literature—and how many other authors have managed that?

Not Naomi Novik, sadly. Her Temeraire series, begun in 2006, reached its apparent conclusion this summer with its ninth volume, League of Dragons, and to look back at the series now is to feel a kind of disappointment. That’s not exactly to disparage Novik. She has repeatedly proved that she is a solid, competent genre novelist, winning the Nebula Award for her 2015 standalone novel Uprooted. But the lure of Temeraire for readers came not so much from the prose style as from the root idea for the books—an idea for taking some of what Patrick O’Brian had done with his Aubrey-Maturin series and setting it in the fantasy world of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. Essentially, Novik set out to write a sea novel of the Napoleonic Wars, but with magical dragons in it.

This was clever on any number of levels. In the first volume, His Majesty’s Dragon, the British capture a ship heading to France—a ship carrying a dragon’s egg that is about to hatch. A British naval officer named Captain William Laurence attempts to care for the egg, though he knows little about dragons. When the egg hatches, the newborn dragon, named Temeraire, imprints on him and adopts him as his human rider. The rareness of dragons, and their unwillingness or inability to shift human partners after imprinting, forces Laurence to leave the prestigious naval branch of the British military and join the distinctly down-market branch known as the Royal Aerial Corps, despite his aristocratic connections.

In Captain Laurence and Temeraire, Novik has a relationship to parallel (and deliberately imitate) the relationship that O’Brian created between the naval captain Jack Aubrey and the doctor Stephen Maturin. And she has the nice mixture of the historical and the fantastic that Clarke had found for her book about magic in the eighteenth century. Novik even has elements of yet another set of genre novels, the books filed under military fantasy. Her books answer a favorite question of such fiction: What would such previous wars as the struggle against Napoleon have been like, if the combatants had somehow had air forces?

His Majesty’s Dragon was enough of a bestseller that Novik was free to carry on her fantasy through subsequent volumes, and though the second entry in the series, Throne of Jade, seemed a little weaker after the cleverness of the first book, the third, Black Powder War, was nicely paced, with a Hornblower-like run of action for the duo of officer and dragon.

With the fourth volume, Empire of Ivory, however, Novik apparently began to doubt the worth of her own work. Lacking the extraordinary talent of Susanna Clarke to keep the prose authentic to the era, Novik started reshaping her characters as proto-twenty-first-century figures. They increasingly became stand-ins, anachronistic protesters, for social causes that the author had decided she wanted to support in today’s world. And she seemed not to mind that this increasingly violated both the historical setting she needed to make her stories work and the character relationship she needed to make her stories interesting.

Through the remaining books in the series, Novik sometimes did better. Laurence and Temeraire are banished for treason after giving the French a cure for a dragon disease, and Australia proved an interesting setting for the subsequent volume, Tongues of Serpents. But a kind of tiredness soon entered the series. No matter how much her characters protest the manners and morals of their time, the author can’t allow them to leave the era of her setting—and the new final volume, League of Dragons, shows how fed up with it all Novik has become.

The book is intended to draw all the threads together, with the snows of Russia the setting for the climactic final showdown with Napoleon, the French military, and a Chinese dragon named Lien whose desire to be revenged on Temeraire has been on a back burner for several volumes. About midway though League of Dragons, Novik simply changes gears, rushing in overdrive to finish off the plot. Yes, everything works out for the British pair. Yes, the French are defeated. Yes, Lien is vanquished—but we aren’t even shown how. Instead, Temeraire’s victory over her dragon rival is merely mentioned in passing.

Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series was never more than derivative genre fiction, written by a competent although not inspired prose stylist. But it started out as fun genre fiction: a clever use of inherited conventions and a pleasure to read in the fast way one reads such books. If you liked such things in general, then you liked His Majesty’s Dragon in particular. Ten years and nine volumes later, even Naomi Novik seems to have had enough of her series. It’s a sadness, isn’t it, that the adventures of Captain Laurence and his dragon peter out this way?

Published under: Book reviews