So, I’ve read Napoleonic novels straight up (Hornblower, Patrick O’Brian), I’ve read Napoleonic novels in space (Honor Harrington), I’ve read Napoleonic novels in the far future where humanity has lost its advanced technology but still managed to reinvent the Age of Fighting Sail (Weber’s Safehold books), and now I’ve read Napoleon with dragons (Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series).
Given my apparent, if inexplicable, fondness for Napoleonic fiction, it was pretty obvious that I would love Novik’s books. I completely expected to think they were great before I even opened the cover of the first volume. Starting from that expectation, though, I was surprised by how absolutely excellent they were.
Because the thing is, yes, they do all the fun stuff that you’d expect them to do, the militaristic bits with battles of ship and dragon, but they also have surprisingly deep world-building. I mean, it’s implausible that a world with real live dragons would still have developed in the ways our world did up to the rise of Napoleon, but within that handwave, Novik has integrated dragons into her societies in such a way that it really works and feels plausible. There aren’t dragons, but if there were, this could be how it’d work.
And better yet is the story Novik is telling. These could just be light fluff with nothing to say other than “Napoleonic dragons, fuck yeah!” and that’d be fine. I’d still read them up as fast as Novik wrote them. But in fact, they’ve got a lot to say — a lot of key moral issues were coming to a head around the time of Napoleon, and the presence of dragons adds even more complexity to that. There’s a lot here to chew on about patriotisim, social change, the ethics of war, and colonialism.
Super excellent, and highly recommended to everyone.