Pluralistic: Naomi Novik's incredible, brilliant, stupendous "Temeraire" series (08 Jan 2023)

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A grid showing the Penguin Random House covers of the first eight Temeraire novels by Naomi Novik.

Naomi Novik's incredible, brilliant, stupendous "Temeraire" series (permalink)

One of the finest pleasures in life is to discover a complete series of novels as an adult, to devour them right through to the end, and to arrive at that ending to discover that, while you'd have happily inhabited the author's world for many more volumes, you are eminently satisfied with the series' conclusion.

I just had this experience and I am still basking in the warm glow of having had such a thoroughly fulfilling imaginary demi-life for half a year. I'm speaking of the nine volumes in Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, which reimagines the Napoleonic Wars in a world that humans share with enormous, powerful, intelligent dragons.

If you are like me, this may not sound like your kind of thing, but please, read on! Novik is a gifted, brilliant storyteller, and even if you, like me, had never read a tale of naval or aerial battles that didn't bore you to tears, you should absolutely read these books, because I have never been so gripped by action sequences as I was by Novik's massive military set-pieces.

Likewise, if you're not a fan of dragon fiction – I'm not, though I do enjoy some heroic fantasy – or talking animal stories (ditto), you owe it to yourself to read these books! Novik's dragons straddle the line between fantasy and sf, with decidedly nonmagical, bioscience- and physics-grounded characteristics. In the hands of a lesser writer, this can be deadly, yielding an imaginary creature that is neither fantastic nor believable.

But Novik's deft handling of her dragons – variegated in biological characteristics, sociological arrangements, and umwelt – renders them as creatures both majestic and relatable, decidedly inhuman in outlook but also intensely likeable characters that you root for (or facepalm over, or sometimes both – a delicious sweet-sour cocktail of emotions!).

Finally, if you're not a fan of historical fiction – again, as I am not! – you should absolutely get these books. Novik is an exhaustive researcher with a gift for rendering the people and circumstances of the past simultaneously comprehensible and unmistakably different, making the past "a different country" indeed, but nevertheless a place whose contours can be firmly grasped and inhabited.

In other words, Novik has written a work of historical-military fiction with dragons in it that I enjoyed, despite having almost no interest in historical fiction, military fiction, or high fantasy. She did this by means of the simple trick of being consistently and variously brilliant in her execution.

First, she is brilliant in the themes that run through these nine volumes: the themes of honor, duty and love, and the impossible dilemmas that arise from trying to be true to yourself and others. Captain William Laurence – the sea captain who finds himself abruptly moved into the dragon corps – is a profoundly honorable man, bound by the strictest of mores. Nominally, Laurence's moral code is shared by his fellow gentlemen and officers, but where most of the world – all the way up to the Lords of the Admiralty – pays lip service to this code, Laurence truly believes in it.

But there is something of Gödel's Incompleteness in Laurence's Georgian morality, in that to be completely true to his ethics, Laurence must – again and again, in ways large and small – also violate his ethics, often with the most extreme consequences imaginable at stake. Novik spends nine volumes destruction-testing Laurence's morality, in a series of hypotheticals of the sort that you could easily spend years arguing over in a philosophy of ethics seminar – but these aren't dry academic questions, they're the stuff of fabulous adventure, great battles, hair's-breadth escapes, and daring rescues.

Next, there is Novik's historical sense, which is broad, deep, and also brilliantly speculative. Novik has painstakingly researched the historical circumstances of all parts of Napoleonic Europe, but also the Inca empire, colonial Africa, settler Australia, late-Qing China, and Meiji Japan.

It would be one thing if Novik merely brought these places and times to life with perfect verisimilitude, but Novik goes further. She has reimagined how all of these societies would have developed in the presence of massive, powerful, intelligent dragons – how their power structures would relate to dragons, and how the dragons would have related to colonial conquest.

The result is both a stage that is set for a Napoleonic War that is recognizable but utterly transformed, a set of social and strategic speculations that would make for a brilliant West Point grad seminar or tabletop military strategy game or an anticolonial retelling of imperial conquest, but is, instead, the backdrop for nine exciting, world-spanning novels.

Next, there's Novik's action staging. I have the world's worst sense of direction and geometry. I can stay in a hotel for a week and still get lost every time I try to find my room. I can't read maps. I can't visualize 3D objects or solve jigsaw puzzles. Hell, I can barely see. Nevertheless, I was able to follow every twist and turn of Novik's intricate naval/aerial/infantry battles, often with casts of thousands. Not just follow them! I was utterly captivated by them.

Next, there's Novik's ability to juggle her characters. While these novels follow two main characters – William Laurence and the dragon Temeraire – they are joined by hundreds of other named characters, from Chinese emperors to the Sapa Inca to Wellington to Napoleon, to say nothing of the dragons, the sea captains, the Japanese lords, the drunken sailors, the brave midshipmen, and so on and so on. Each one of these people is distinct, sharply drawn, necessary to the tale, and strongly individuated. I am in awe (and not a little jealous). Wow. Just wow.

Finally, there's Novik's language: the tale is told primarily through Laurence's point of view, which is rendered in mannered, early 19th century English. Again, this is the kind of thing I usually find either difficult or irritatingly precious or both – but again, it turns out that I just hadn't read anyone who was really good at this sort of thing. Novik is really, really good at it.

At the end of one summer, years ago, I ran into Vernor Vinge at a conference and asked him how he was doing. He lit up and told me he'd just had one of the best summers of his adult life, because he'd started it by reading the first Terry Pratchett Discworld novel, and had discovered, stretching before him, dozens more in the series. It was an experience he hadn't enjoyed since he was a boy, discovering the writers that preceded him.

As I read the Temeraire books, I kept returning to that conversation with Vinge. I listened to the Temeraire books as audiobooks, downloading them from and listening to them on my underwater MP3 player as I swam my daily laps. Simon Vance's narration truly did the series justice, and I could only imagine how complex it must have been for Vance and his director to juggle all the character voices, but they pulled it off beautifully.

I normally read pretty widely, but almost always within a band of themes, settings and modes that I've specialized in. This can be a very satisfying experience, of course. Last year, I read dozens of fantastic books that were in my wheelhouse, for all that that wheelhouse is an extremely large one:

But reading against type, outside of one's comfort zone, yields new and distinct delights. The Temeraire series joins the very short list of heroic fantasy novels that I count among my all-time favorites, along with such marvels as Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos/Jhereg series:

Brust is tremblingly close to finishing the Vlad books, which I started reading as a 13 year old and have been devouring ever since. I can't wait for the final volumes to come out, so I can binge-read the whole series from beginning to end.

There are so many good new books coming out every month, and it can feel like a disservice to those writers to indulge in backlist reading, but there is a lot to be said for revisiting beloved works of decades gone by. I am so glad to have read Temeraire at last – I haven't been this excited to read something I missed the first time around since I read Red Mars 12 years after its initial publication:

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