Here’s what everyone will tell you about the award-winning Temeraire series that Naomi Novik has just completed: it’s the Napoleonic Wars (1803–15)—with dragons. The series has expressive, pitch-perfect writing, glorious steampunk details, and jaw-dropping adventures. Fans of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin novels will relish Novik’s accounts of slashing battles and brilliant military maneuvers taking place both on the seas and in the skies, as human aviators in bottle-green coats cling to brass-buckled leather harnesses atop their enormous dragons, twisting and diving and hurtling upward to evade French pursuit while bombing the ships far below.
The nine books of the Temeraire series offer excellent wish fulfillment for those interested in imagining martial derring-do, but that is not particularly my wish. What impresses me about the series is how it fulfills the wish of many of us who study the period: to imagine a different, better 19th-century world. In Novik’s counterfactual narrative, the presence of indigenous dragons shapes local cultures, international relations, and the politics of race, gender, and sex. The Inca of South America have survived and now run a powerful empire; the Tswana people of Africa invade African, Atlantic, and European slave ports to take back their enslaved people; Native Americans establish lucrative trade routes from Canada to California. “All maps are fiction when the world is seen from the sky,” a character remarks.
The Temeraire books, however, also have a tenderer appeal. Imagine a naval story in which the ship is an idealistic, animate being who yearns to protect his beloved captain. When the dragon Temeraire hatches, his first words are to ask captain Will Laurence, “Why are you frowning?” Laurence responds, “I beg your pardon, I did not mean to.” This exchange sets the pattern for their relationship: the dragon’s concern for his human, the human’s secret emotional life not entirely open to his animal. Their relationship is not the instrumental one between arms and man, but one of mutual care between two beings who each wish to make the other feel better. Outsiders continue to see Temeraire as a terrifying killing machine with giant serrated teeth and claws, but Laurence—and the series’ readers—find that perspective increasingly offensive as our admiring tenderness for Temeraire’s sterling qualities grows.
THE TEMERAIRE SERIES UNDERSTANDS THAT LIBERTY IS INTERMINGLED WITH ISSUES OF SPECIES IDENTITY.
This idea of a physically monstrous being with a high-minded character might well sound familiar. The Temeraire series is deeply indebted to Frankenstein. Like Shelley’s creature, Novik’s dragon is a creature who eloquently tells his own story in spite of human revulsion at his appearance. Like Shelley’s creature, too, Novik’s dragon is capable of more sophisticated philosophical thinking than the humans. The characters debate the nature of property, the duty that one owes to the state, the requirements of liberty, the hallmarks of tyranny, the nature of treason, and the necessity of political representation. As Novik herself pointed out in an NPR interview, Laurence is attuned to traditional values like duty and patriotism, whereas the dragon Temeraire, born in 1805, is a revolutionary.1 Temeraire’s seditious thinking begins as he puzzles out the difference between property and non-property. Why, he wonders, are fish free to all, but sheep are someone’s property? Why does he serve the king; is he the king’s property? What would happen to him should he refuse to serve the nation; is liberty possible for his species?
Temeraire can ask these big questions because he sees how other nations treat dragons and knows there is nothing natural in the British model. He is a cosmopolitan citizen: conceived in China, gestated on a French ship, hatched among the British. China puts its dragons in heated pavilions amid fragrant gardens, teaches them poetry, and feeds them special dragon cuisine with spicy sauces. France widens its boulevards to accommodate dragons. Sometimes the dragons are in charge: in Japan the dragons are the governors of the prefectures; the Tswana and Sotho peoples of Africa worship dragons as ancestral reincarnations; the Incan dragons protect their human clans. Other dragons set an economic example: aboriginal people in America and Australia partner with dragons to create new shipping routes. On the other hand, the Russians chain, starve, and brutalize their beasts. In short, Novik reimagines different cultures’ economic and political organization around dragons.
The British treat their dragons like cattle—or perhaps, as Temeraire notices, like slaves. The similarities are clear, even discounting the fact that Temeraire’s skin is black. Temeraire points out that “if eggs are property, then the dragons that hatch out of them are also, and it is no wonder that people treat us as though we are slaves.” The British consider dragons to be mindless animals who can be chained up, have no control over their own lives, and labor without pay. Temeraire bitterly recognizes that “we are just like slaves; only there are fewer of us, and we are much bigger and dangerous, so we are treated generously where they are treated cruelly; but we are still not free.” Laurence is sympathetic, having grown up in an abolitionist household. The pair lead dragons into fighting for change at home: better food, access to learning, the right to be paid for their work, the right to vote, the right to serve in Parliament. Eventually the dragons draw up their own constitution, the Dragon Rights Act of 1813.
The Temeraire series understands that liberty is intermingled with issues of species identity; here Novik clearly draws on Locke, Jefferson, and Wollstonecraft, as well as more recent scholars in animal studies and disability studies. Temeraire and Laurence debate whether sea serpents, who do not communicate, can be considered rational beings. When dragons speak, Novik makes us think about what animals might say regarding their own care, food allotments, and sleeping quarters. Indeed, often it is the dragons who organize the humans’ living conditions. Who owns whom? Laurence is startled to realize that “the relations between captain and beast could with more rationality be given the character of possession by the latter, than the former.”
For co-species existence to work, the characters must learn what kinds of built environments can accommodate the enormously different bodies of dragons and humans. Scholars of disability studies recognize that bodies are not inherently disabled, but become disabled by their social and architectural situations. To take an example I know well: being short is not disabling until one encounters a high shelf. In the Temeraire books, dragons are frustrated by pens and pages designed for the human scale. When Temeraire encounters a Chinese sand table on which dragons can write using their claws, the accommodation opens up an entirely new capacity for literacy.
We occupy the space between human and dragon, comprehending both sympathetically, but fully within neither.
We can also read the dragon-human alignment as an argument for a neurodiverse world. The dragons have autistic-spectrum-type thinking: they are extremely logical, supremely talented at strategic and mathematical thinking (Temeraire’s favorite bedtime reading is Newton’s Principia Mathematica), and prefer to speak the truth directly while disregarding hierarchy and etiquette. Dragons assess ethical choices rationally. After setting a shocking fire, for instance, one dragon remarks “judiciously,” “I do not deny there was a risk … but one must take risks occasionally to achieve one’s ends, when there is no better way of going about it. There is no sense lamenting a necessary evil.” Because of their total indifference to human preconceptions, dragons choose captains who are women, gay men, and people of color, creating an aerial force that is far more diverse than anything that would have been possible in the real period. The hero of the Temeraire books may be a white male captain, but his heroism increasingly consists not in military prowess but in an aptitude to adapt to the innovative ideas of a dragon who often pushes him into modernity faster than he can handle.
I began by invoking Shelley, but I want to end with Novik’s other great period influence, Jane Austen.2 Laurence resembles Captain Frederick Wentworth of Persuasion, but, more profoundly, Austen has clearly taught Novik important writing techniques. From Austen, Novik has learned how to use free indirect discourse, which conveys a character’s thoughts in third person without signaling it explicitly. For instance, when Temeraire believes Laurence is dead but suddenly sees him, the narrator remarks: “He had never seen a ghost, and had often thought it would be very interesting, but this was not, at all; it was dreadful, to see Laurence just as in life, to wish that he might reach out and gather him in, and keep him safe.” Free indirect style creates a kind of uncanny composite discourse in which the reader is simultaneously inside and outside the character’s mind. In the fifth book, just about the midpoint of the series, we find ourselves moving from Laurence’s to Temeraire’s perspective, and we subsequently become accustomed to toggling between human and alien intelligences. We occupy the space between human and dragon, comprehending both sympathetically, but fully within neither.
Unfortunately for us, Novik has learned something else from Austen: the passive-aggressive pleasure of baffling the reader. Everyone who’s read Emma remembers the infuriating proposal scene (“What did she say? Just what she ought, of course. A lady always does”). Similarly, Novik initiates the climactic military confrontation, in which Laurence and Temeraire launch into the air to attack Napoleon and the Chinese dragon Lien at last—and then simply skips it. To this, the only imaginable readerly reaction is: aargh! Nor does she give us a battle of Waterloo.
Austen’s indifference to proposal scenes is usually read as a sign that her real interests lie elsewhere, and I think Novik’s bold choice to skip the military climax has the same explanation. There are, in fact, three endings. Here they are, in order of importance, with spoilers kept to a minimum. First, Novik summarizes the climactic battle without describing it, as if to say: reader, you’ve had enough of this stuff, I’m done with it. Second, she abruptly ends the global power struggle of the British allies against the French empire by crafting a surprise winner: a woman. One can imagine her glee at making a wife and mother do what had baffled the military commanders of Europe. But the third and most important ending, for the series’ readers, is that Temeraire and Laurence settle down on an estate, looking ahead to Temeraire becoming a member of Parliament. In the modern world, as the dragons might remark, the rule of law prevails over the rule of claw. State legislation, government salaries, stock markets, and trade concessions await the dragons in the Victorian century to come. We started this series as the Napoleonic Wars—with dragons! We end it with country-house gentry Victorian England—with dragons! I hope that Novik gives us a draconic Middlemarch next. I would give anything to hear a dragon commenting on Mr. Brooke’s speeches.
Come to the Temeraire series for the battles, but stay for the endearing characters, the expressive prose, and, above all, the thrilling ideas. These books speak passionately to modern causes: animal rights, autistic rights, women’s rights, human rights, a multicultural global world. But they do so by showing how liberation movements derive from the principles of basic rights that Temeraire and his captain work out, night after night, huddled together on the deck of a ship, reading Locke and Newton. Here’s a last example of what I find so impressive about these books. At the end of the final novel, Laurence thinks (in free indirect discourse), “The reward of true service, surely, was to be asked for more.” At the end of the series, he has finally found certainty that his turbulent, troubled, treasonous career did indeed constitute “true service.” Laurence is both a man from an alien era, given his belief in duty, and a man we recognize as admirable, since he wants to do more of what is right. We are faced with a historical alterity we remain estranged from, and an inner certainty that we can endorse. The doubled perspective of free indirect discourse never felt so good. There’s no military situation; the war is over. A good mind fighting its way toward new ideas is the battle that the Temeraire series presents as the most powerful one of all.
- Ravenna Koenig, “A Writer-Engineer’s Historical Fiction Hack: Add Dragons,” NPR, February 27, 2016.
- Timothy E. Scheurer and Pam Scheurer note that Sir Walter Scott also influenced Novik. See “The Far Side of the World: Naomi Novik and the Blended Genre of Dragon Fantasy and the Sea Adventure,” Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 45, no. 3 (June 2012), pp. 572–91. ↩