10. Temeraire by Naomi Novik (2006) 340 p.

oh, to have a beautiful dragon to love and cuddle and FLY INTO A VIOLENT BATTLE AND MURDER OTHER PEOPLE'S BELOVED DRAGONS

I should have known better than to buy this book, which I did on a whim in a second-hand bookstore because I really felt like blowing some money. And blow I did! Dragons, on the whole, have been exhausted as a source of fantasy, and I have very little tolerance for an author who continues to wring every last drop out of them instead of coming up with something more original (see: Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines or Emily Rodda’s children’s fantasy novels).

In Novik’s credit, she does at least come up with a slightly fresh (or at least “less stale”) idea; Temeraire is set in an alternate Napoleonic era in which dragons exist. My tolerance is cut short here, because that’s the limit of her idea: dragons exist, and are used in combat. That’s it. History has played out exactly the same, from the Roman Empire to Trafalgar, despite the presence of a secondary intelligent species on the planet. Society does not treat them as such; despite their handlers having strong bonds with them and considering them equals, they are referred to as “beasts,” and considered useful breeding stock. The handlers have no objection to this, which is one of many contradictions throughout.

This book is basically chick lit that just happens to feature dragons. It follows the tale of former Navy captain William Laurence and his raising of the titular Temeraire, as they progress through training and eventually have a couple of skirmishes over the English Channel. Although their relationship is one between a hardened military veteran and an enormous monster capable of slaughtering hundreds of men, it struck me as similar to that of an unmarried, middle-aged woman and her sweater-wearing poodle. Laurence bathes him, lavishes him with gifts and jewellery, reads to him, grooms him, talks about his feelings and generally mollycoddles him throughout all tedious three hundred and forty pages. When Novik tires of this, she takes us through the fascinating and exciting intrigue of 19th century British ettiquette:

The admiral was clearly oppressed by thoughts of his work, and there were long periods between his remarks. The table would have been a silent and heavy one, save that Chenery was in his usual form, high-spirited and quick to make conversation, and he spoke freely in complete disregard of the naval convention that reserved the right of starting conversation to Lord Gardner.

When addressed directly, the naval officers would pause very pointedly before responding to him, as briefly as possible, before dropping the subject. Laurence was at first agonized on his behalf, and then began to grow angry. It must have been clear to even the most sensitive temper that Chenery was speaking in ignorance, his chosen subjects were innocuous, and to sit in sullen and reproachful silence seemed to Laurence a far greater piece of rudeness.

Chenery could not help but notice the cold response; as yet he was only beginning to look puzzled, not offended, but that would hardly last. When he gamely tried once more, this time Laurence deliberately volunteered a reply. The two of them carried the discussion along between them for several minutes, and then Gardner, his attention drawn from his brown study, glanced up and contributed a remark. The conversation was thus blessed, and the other officers joined in at last; Laurence made a great effort, and kept the topic running throughout the rest of the meal.


Overall: wooden characters, a boring plot, and an unoriginal theme to begin with. #4: Time Enough For Love can step aside as the worst book I have read this year so far.

Books: 10/50
Pages: 3314