Agnieszka lives in small village in a pastoral valley, the setting of which is strongly rooted in Polish folklore. There is a deep, dark, sinister, magical wood which extends into the valley, and out ofÂ the wood come horrors unspeakable. Every ten years, the “Dragon”, who is actually a wizard and the feudal lord, picks a girl and takes her to his tower. No one in the valley really knows why. Against all expectations, Agnieszka is taken by the wizard, and against her own expectations the wizard trains her in the magic arts. She is a poor student until she discovers that her brand of magic is closely entwined with nature and the forest.
I had a hard time with the beginning of this book. While the characters and the story are well-rounded and interesting, I had the feeling that all the sinister and mysterious stuff was going to turn into a big anti-climax. Happily, I was wrong. As Agnieszka’s journey into magic and the mysteries of The Wood continues, the political and epic sides of the story start revealing themselves. And that’s where things become really interesting. The use of a strict first person viewpoint for the book is a good choice, as it allows the reader to grow his understanding of the world along with our heroine, as she journeys from her tiny village into the much more cynical largerÂ world. Another interesting aspect is how Ms. Novik manages to describe magic in a way that effectively communicates difficulty, effort, setbacks and dangers without making the whole thing seem hopelessly corny.
After their adventures in China in Throne of Jade, Temeraire, Laurence and the rest of the crew receive orders to travel to Istambul in the Ottoman Empire. Here, they must retrieve three Turkish dragon eggs for further transport to England. Pressed for time, Laurence opts for the overland route through Asia, a long and arduous journey. Needless to say, once in Istambul circumstances have changed. And that is just the beginning of the troubles for our heroes.
While still not quite reaching the level of the first book, Black Powder War is still eminently readable and fun. At this point it seems the macropolitical developments in EuropeÂ starts to diverge more markedly from our history, with Temeraire and Laurence acting as agents for a change in social status of dragons in the West.
The second book picks up immediately after the events of His Majesty’s Dragon. As it turns out, Temeraire’s egg, which Laurence and his crew captured on a French warship, was meant as a gift from China to Napoleon. Temeraire is a very rare Chinese breed, and now the Chinese want him back. Thus starts a long and arduous journey to Peking on a diplomatic mission to resolve the situation.
While not quite as good as the first book, the second installment keeps up the spirit of high adventure. Temeraire is fleshed out some more as a character, with some interesting influence from a Chinese society where Dragons are treated very differently compared to their situation in Europe.
The year is 1804. Captain Will Laurence of the Royal Navy and his crew capture a French warship. On board they find a dragon egg; a prize worth a princely sum to the British war effort. The egg hatches and the dragon, whomÂ Laurence names Temeraire, imprints on him as his handler. Laurence must leave the Royal Navy to join the Flying Corps, and entirely foreign environment for him.
His Majesty’s Dragon is a delightful novel, full of whooping-out-loud-inducingÂ adventure set in a period of gentlemen, honour and heroic deeds. There’s a Horatio Hornblower vibe over the story, which dares to be high adventure without dwelling too much over the fact that dragons do exist andÂ are simply part of the world. A somewhat storied and mysticalÂ part, to be sure, but there is noÂ further explanation required or necessary. Ms. Novik doesn’tÂ bend over backwards to make theÂ existence of these beasts plausible, but simply integrates them into history as we know it, making for some striking images. For example, dragon formations crewed with gunners and boarders striking at convoys in the English channel. The entire organization of dragons in battle as couriers, support aircraft or heavy strike beasts depending on size and ability rapidly starts to seemÂ entirely plausible given the historical background. And so, even though it is full of dragons, the novel doesn’t feel very much like fantasy at all, keeping its thematic roots firmly in the historical novel and alternate history camps.