Saturday, November 17, 2012

Crucible of Gold: A Brief Appreciation

I have just finished reading, and very much enjoying, the seventh of Naomi Novik's Temeraire novels. For those not familiar with them, they are the latest books in the genre invented by Captain Marryat in the 19th century and better known from C.S. Forester's Hornblower novels and the Aubrey/Maturin novels of Patrick O'Brien. Novik's novels, like those, are set during the Napoleonic wars, and closely linked to the British navy. Her world differs from theirs in only one way, a feature that her predecessors neglected to include.


In His Majesty's Dragon, the first book of the series, Europe and the war are very much as they were in the real history, save that the navy includes an aerial corps made up of dragons—the biggest the size of a small ship—and their captains and crews. The dragons can speak, have about human level intelligence, but are regarded by most humans as animals and treated accordingly. Their captains, each bonded to his dragon at its hatching, mostly view the matter somewhat differently. The protagonists of the series are Captain Lawrence and Temeraire, his dragon; as their relationship develops, each becomes to the other his closest friend and companion.

One of the things I discovered when I wrote my first novel is that no plot survives contact with the characters. I suspect that Novik made the same discovery early in the series. England, at the beginning of the book, is implausibly similar to England as it actually existed, with many of the same people in it and the same Imperial enemy. As the story proceeds and the characters, and readers, see more and more of the world, it becomes less and less the world as it was and more and more the world as it would have been if humans shared it with another, larger and much longer lived species. In China we see a society where dragons and humans function on a basis of equality, in Africa and, in the latest book, South America, very different societies, in each of which the two species have come to a different, and internally plausible, relationship.

They are very good books.


William H. Stoddard said...

I liked the first book in the series a lot, particularly because its most important plot crisis involved Captain Lawrence realizing that he had misjudged another man's character and put himself in a false moral position for which he had to make amends. That was a perfect Jane Austen moment, in a novel whose story Austen very likely could never have imagined—but it made me think that Novik really did have a historical sense. I've enjoyed the other novels as well, but not quite as much.

Ironically, a friend of mine went to her book discussion group and suggested that the relationship between men and dragons was a trope for the relationship between men and women in that era (women can speak, but aren't truly rational beings, need a man to take care of them, and are easily kept happy by jewelry and status symbols)—only to have everyone else pooh-pooh the idea. I told her about the book A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes, written not long after and as a response to Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Women. . . .

Jonathan said...

I took up the recommendation, and finished the first book in the series a couple of days ago. It's readable and amiable, though I don't think myself that Novik trumps Forester or O'Brian.

The absence of magic means that there are some plausibility problems. As flying creatures, the dragons seem implausibly heavy and able to carry implausibly heavy loads. Feeding them must be exceedingly expensive. No explanation is provided for the 'divine wind' phenomenon. But what struck me most was the dragon hatching from the egg and immediately speaking fluent English. This is convenient, of course, but I don't see how it can be accounted for without the use of magic, or at least telepathy.

At first I thought the Ancient Roman baths in Scotland were an error. However, on checking up, I found that the Romans did have a presence in Scotland for some decades. They built forts there, and the remains of a Roman military bath-house have been found near Glasgow, built in 142-143 AD (after Hadrian's Wall).

Jonathan said...

From a quick look around Wikipedia, it seems that the heaviest flying creatures in reality were some of the pterosaurs, who reached maybe up to a quarter of a tonne. Novik describes her dragons as reaching fifty tonnes. I don't have the relevant scientific knowledge, but I don't think you can just scale up an animal and expect it to function. Especially not a flying animal.

Novik's dragons have sacs containing some lighter-than-air gas. That would help, in principle, but is it enough? Consider the size of balloon needed to lift a few humans, each weighing less than a tenth of a tonne.