We here at Shades of Caruso love dragons. We love them so much that both of us independently paid money to see Dragonheart in the theater, a movie that features Dennis Quaid playing a hero with a voice reminiscent of a man in the late stages of emphysema; a dragon played by James Bond who’s saddled with lines like “I merely chewed in self-defense, but I never swallowed”; and David Thewlis honking his way through another cringing, effeminate villain role. It might be a significantly less painful experience on mute, actually. Of course, it’s bad for lots of other reasons too: terrible writing and plotting, corny “comedy” bits, lackluster CGI, muddy production values… Sure, it’s got a talking dragon in it, but let’s face it, a dragon alone can’t save a bad plot (witness Eragon. Or don’t).
The truth is that dragon-related entertainment is hard to come by. Well, scratch that — I should say that good dragon-related entertainment is hard to come by. I have to admit that there are a lot of books about dragons out there that I haven’t read, so for all I know, there are plenty I’d love. It’s just that many of them sound so, well…silly.
I love the concept of fantasy, the incredible range of ideas it has access to. I read A Wrinkle in Time. I watched Game of Thrones like everyone else and I too want to slap Joffrey. I’ve even, God help me, listened to Yes. It’s just that the barrier to entry for fantasy is high, especially for books. Most of the covers could kindly be described as “niche.” The titles usually involve words like “untime” and “rayne.” The heroes’ names sometimes have apostrophes in them (note to fantasy authors: please stop doing this. I don’t want to read about someone named F’lar unless I’m supposed to hate him). The writing is often ponderous, and there are always twenty books in every series, and each one is a thousand pages long.
Perhaps the core audience doesn’t want publishers to pander to what’s considered acceptably mainstream, but I think a lot of genre books get unfairly ignored because non-fans see them and think, “That’s not for me.” Or worse, they’re intrigued, but they don’t know where to start. I edit children’s books for a large company, some of which are fantasy or sci-fi, so I realize the conundrum here: some stories might draw a larger audience, but they also have to appeal to the people they know are going to buy them, and be true to the stories within.
That’s where we come to Temeraire. The thing is, I don’t think I ever would have picked up these books based on the covers alone.
They look like standard-issue dragon fantasy novels. Actually, that’s what the US covers look like. The UK covers are better:
I like the dragon-and-boats thing — pretty accurate, and a bit more in the direction of “this might just be serious literature WITH DRAGONS IN IT OMFG” — but the paperback covers look a bit too much like Jane Austen-esque beast-friendly chick lit, which is schizophrenic and sexually confusing. I appreciate what a tough job the designers have, though – how do you make dragons look cool without also making them look defanged? How do you convey a blend of genres? How do you market a series like this? (I’m not going to answer those questions, by the way. Good writers know that asking questions rather proposing answers makes you sound much smarter.)
But I didn’t buy the books because of the covers – I found out about them because I read a review in Entertainment Weekly in which they were described as a kind of Patrick O’Brian with dragons, which, well, do you know me? Soon both my husband and I were both staying up until four a.m. to read them. The first three were published all at once, and at 300-400 pages each, they weren’t intimidatingly long. Neither was the world they described very different from our own. In fact, the only difference was that this alternate universe contained talking, intelligent dragons. Can you imagine anything more awesome? The only thing better would be if the dragons pooped Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.
Novik came up with an incredibly clever, simple idea — what if dragons existed, and were used as a line of England’s military defense during the Napoleonic Wars? She also starts us out with a protagonist as green to dragons as we are — Captain Will Laurence (note lack of apostrophes), a seaman in Her Majesty’s Navy, who accidentally ends up with a very valuable Chinese dragon egg when he captures a French ship. The egg hatches some weeks later, while Laurence and his crew are still out to sea, and though Laurence knows almost nothing about dragons except that they need to be harnessed when they hatch (so that they can bond with the person who will become their captain in England’s Aerial Corps), he ends up becoming the choice of captain for the egg who hatches — the dragon he will name Temeraire.
The first book in the series largely concerns Laurence’s gradual acceptance of his new fate — he was a respected captain in a prestigious profession, happy with his life, and he is at first reluctant and resentful of his duty to Temeraire. We follow the pair as they embark on training and learn about life in the Aerial Corps, which is very different from the life Laurence knew. Aviators are the shabby black sheep of the military, treated by the rest of English society as something of a joke, their dragons feared dangerous. In fact, dragons are as intelligent as humans — they show an incredible aptitude for math and science, and Temeraire in particular is something of a savant. At first Laurence thinks his growing bond with Temeraire is unusual and that the other aviators think of their dragons as mere tools, but he soon learns that the bond between a dragon and his captain is one of the closest relationships either of them will ever experience.
When we meet Laurence he could be fairly described as a stiff; he’s full of rigid ideas about what’s right and mannerly, and it’s only when he bonds with Temeraire that he starts to relax. But it’s to Novik’s credit that she doesn’t entirely soften him — though he grows to love Temeraire, he is still concerned utmost with what is good, with being an honorable man, and, above all, with following society’s strictures. Temeraire is his foil – an intelligent innocent who is forever questioning why things are the way they are, much to Laurence’s exasperation and bafflement. This interplay is never didactic; it comes from character and not as a lecture. The push and pull runs through the series as a constant, with each party softening to the other’s argument as they grow to love and depend on each other.
Subsequent books have Laurence and Temeraire being forced to go around the world on various missions – to China, Turkey, Germany, Africa, and back to England to fight Napolean, whose ominous presence runs through the books like a harbinger of impending destruction. It’s an ingenious idea to have the pair travel, not only because there’s only so much you can write about English battles against Napolean’s army but because it allows Novik to explore how dragons are treated in other countries.
This is perhaps Novik’s cleverest invention. By far the greatest strength of genre fiction is the way it refracts all the ordinary issues of domestic drama from unusual angles. Where a straight drama would tell us a standard teenage-daughter-hates-her-mother story, The Exorcist compares puberty to demonic possession. In Ginger Snaps, a young girl getting her period for the first time realizes she is also becoming a werewolf; we watch her coming to grips with her newfound power and sexuality. Buffy, of course, worked on a throughline of a high-school-as-hell metaphor, and Battlestar Galactica got us to sympathize with Iraqi insurgents by having our colonized heroes fight back against an oppressive regime.
Temeraire explores issues of feminism (a certain breed of dragon — Longwings — only accept female captains, to Laurence’s surprise and profound comic embarrassment), racism, slavery, the question of animal intelligence, and dragons as a metaphor for how we treat outsiders and minorities, all without being moralistic. In England, dragons are kept away from society at large, and are generally treated as if they were large, winged horses. Their captains and crews love them, but they have no autonomy. Laurence and Temeraire don’t realize there’s any other way to be, until they travel to China and find out that there, dragons are independent and have their own lives and professions (ferrying people from one place to the other, performing manual labor), eat cooked meals instead of raw cows and sheep, and live in sheltered, warm pavilions instead of making their beds on the ground. And some — like Temeraire, for he is an extremely rare and special breed known as a Celestial — are revered as thinkers and scholars, and spend their time in the life of the mind instead of being forced to defend the country as an unthinking tool of war.
With each book, Temeraire grows more and more anxious about the way dragons are treated in England and feels more and more that he must do something to change it. Laurence wants only the best for Temeraire, and for dragons as a whole, but he knows the harsh reality he’s afraid to confront his friend with; he knows how unlikely the possibility of change is, especially in a time of war. We don’t need to have the point underlined — it’s there, and it shades everything we see.
The most touching thing about the books — in which much is touching, as Novik has a deft hand with melodramatic but never mawkish storylines — is the relationship between Laurence and Temeraire, but also the way Laurence is changed by his love. Temeraire is part precocious child, part confidante, part comrade and colleague — a true life partner — and he gradually opens Laurence’s tightly closed and rigid personality. For me, good drama happens when we as an audience are torn between two points of view — when both sides of an argument are presented as equally valid, and we empathize with the views of those on either side. I find nothing more riveting than this three-dimensionality of character, and good drama always has it, no matter what the genre. And in this series, Laurence and Temeraire are always fascinating, and always people we want to know.