What happens when you take Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey and grant his ship thoughts, wings, and the ability to breathe sonic waves? You get Naomi Novik’s excellent Temeraire series, one of my favorite historical fantasies.
In Novik’s version of the Napoleonic era, dragons are used as flying battleships, complete with crews that hang on by clipping carabiners to their giant steeds’ harnesses. Dragons can talk too, and often express personalities evocative of highly intelligent dogs.
In the first book, Temeraire, a rare breed of dragon, is found in the egg by William Laurence, a captain of the Royal Navy. After Temeraire hatches, he imprints on Laurence, and will have no one else as a companion, leaving Laurence little choice but to give up his career in the navy and join the less-reputable Royal Aerial Corps. As an aviator, Laurence is (literally) out of his depth. But he and Temeraire learn quickly and come to be an important force in the fight against Napoleon—at least in the first few books until Laurence’s growing esteem for dragons sets him at odds with his home country.
There’s a lot to like here. For one, Laurence and Temeraire are both excellent characters: likable, distinct, and dynamic without seeming inconsistent. The worldbuilding is also fascinating. In Britain, dragons are seen as dangerous but necessary beasts, and the government isolates them from the rest of the nation. But as Laurence and Temeraire range further afield, they learn that other societies treat dragons quite differently, sometimes with equal (or even revered) status... which leads Temeraire to wonder why dragons shouldn’t have similar rights back home.
Then we’ve got the whole alternate history aspect. Playing with actual events is tricky: how much can you change the course of the Napoleonic Wars before the setting feels like all fantasy and no history? Novik mostly sticks to the real chronology, but her diversions—like a French invasion of Britain—lead to some of the best moments in the series.
League of Dragons, the last entry in the saga, plays it safer. Napoleon is on the run after his defeat in Russia, and Laurence and Temeraire eventually help Britain and its allies achieve total victory; the exact time and place of the general’s downfall differ from those in the historical record, but the outcome is the same (as it probably must be for a satisfying conclusion). Characters from previous books flit in and out, and Novik ends several action scenes abruptly, without fully resolving their climaxes.
It’s still a good read, though, and the series as a whole is outstanding. I can only hope Novik continues to write historical fantasy, and that her next setting is even half as enthralling.