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In His Majesty's Service (Three Novels of Temeraire) by Naomi Novik

01/06/2010. Contributed by Pauline Morgan

Buy In His Majesty's Service in the USA - or Buy In His Majesty's Service in the UK

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pub: Del Rey/Ballantine. 815 page hardback. Price: $28.00 (US), $35.00 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-345-51354-0.

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What is the purpose of an omnibus volume? Is it just to get an author's earlier books back into print? If so, surely reprinting the originals would make better financial sense as three books in one is usually cheaper than three separate volumes. In the days when most popular books went into book club editions, it was understandable, now these outlets are less common. This particular omnibus contains the first three novels concerning the adventures of the dragon Temeraire and his handler, Will Laurence. It is a big, heavy book and has been reset in a smaller type to reduce the number of pages. Perhaps if a reader has only come across the characters in volume four, purchase of the first three together is an advantage, but readers like me already have at least one on the novels between these covers, so the question is: Do I really want a duplicate. I suppose I could always get rid of my first edition.

The first of the three books in this tome is equally confusing. In the UK, it was published as 'Temeraire', in the USA as 'His Majesty's Dragon'. It is set during the Napoleonic Wars in Europe. Will Laurence is a naval captain in 1805 when he captures a French frigate and finds a dragon's egg on board. This leads to another thorny question: If you make one change to the world we know, how do you calculate the ramifications of that change? If, as postulated here, dragons have always been a predator at the top of the food chain that occurs world-wide and the Romans were the first to harness them in Europe, why has history been almost identical to that which we know until this date? If it has followed the recorded course, how much can you actually change? For example, the training covert that Laurence and his newly hatched dragon are sent to is on Loch Laggan in Scotland. There is a stone built, working Roman bathhouse here for the relaxation of the aviators, yet in our recorded history the Romans never had permanent settlements this far north. If in this world they did, then it would be reasonable to expect other changes to have crept in over the intervening 1800 years. The advantage of dragons should have distinctly changed the face of warfare and the map of the Roman Empire.

Another problem for consideration is how far an author can distort science, in this case biology, even in a fantasy? The dragons are clearly reptiles, even though they are warm-blooded. As it is postulated that some of the dinosaurs were warm-blooded to account for the enormous size they reached, this is not a problem. Flying is. These dragons can reach over fifty tons in weight and a length greater than the frigates of the seventeenth century navy. Even with airsacs for buoyancy they cannot reach the speeds required for take-off and to keep them airborne. Even birds have a limit to their size if they want to fly and they have fragile bones to decrease their weight. These creatures would need very thick leg bones to support their massive weights. It is fair enough to have the dragons maturing in the egg for a number of years but once hatched it should take several more years for them to mature from an animal the size of a Great Dane to a behemoth of fifty tons. Six months seems a little quick. The problem of keeping such a plethora of dragons well fed is another issue. Whereas cold-blooded reptiles can go for six months without food, these dragons need at least a cow a day to keep them at flying weight.

In 'His Majesty's Dragon', Laurence harnesses the newly-hatched dragon and has to adjust, not to being a dragon captain but also to giving up his ship and joining the Aerial Corps. It is worth pointing out that the dragons are a kind of aerial ship with up to fifty crew scrambling over them during flight. At Loch Laggan, Laurence and Temeraire have to train in aerial tactics and formation manoeuvres before being sent to Dover to help repel an attempt at invasion by the French. It is during this battle that it is realised that Temeraire is not just a Chinese dragon but a Celestial - the rarest of the Oriental varieties. Since the egg was originally intended for Bonaparte as a gift between Emperors, the Chinese decide they want their dragon back.

In 'Throne Of Jade', the second novel in this volume, Laurence and Temeraire are sent by sea to China. The brother to the Emperor of China, Prince Yongxing, has been sent to fetch the dragon back and is determined to separate Temeraire from Laurence. He will stoop to any means including bribery, lying and attempted murder. He believes that Laurence is unsuitable to be the companion of a Celestial dragon, as he has no connection to the Imperial family. Novik's dragons, however, share some traits with Anne McCaffrey's Pernese dragons in that they become very attached to their chosen captain and will defend them against all comers and certainly will not be willingly separated from them. Their loyalty to their captains is unbreakable.

In China, Temeraire learns that here dragons are regarded very differently from those in Europe. They are treated as equals, have exotic pavilions to sleep in and eat cooked food. They have the freedom to go where they like and are taught to read and write. He is given the choice of staying in China or returning to Britain with Laurence. Being a young, idealistic male who enjoys a scrap, he elects to stay with Laurence and decides that he wants to change attitudes in Britain and fight for equality for dragons.

The third book in this volume, 'Black Powder War', sees Temeraire and his crew racing overland from China to Istanbul to urgently collect three dragon eggs that the British government has purchased from the Turks. They are stalled by all kinds of political obstacles before Laurence takes the decision to steal the eggs that are rightly the property of King George. Heading for home, they run straight into Bonaparte's march across Prussia. His advance is spectacularly swift and deadly as he has a new advisor. Lien, the albino Celestial dragon that was Prince Yongxing's companion, has a score to settle with Temeraire, after the prince was killed. She thinks the best way to achieve her aims is to help Bonaparte conquer Europe before crushing Britain. She has persuaded him to use dragons to carry artillery, men and supplies to devastating effect. Laurence and Temeraire are caught up in the retreat with an additional problem. One of the eggs is about to hatch.

If the reader is prepared to ignore the historical and biological anomalies, the books are enjoyable. The characters of Temeraire and the other dragons are enchanting. One does wonder, though, if Novik has another agenda, that of animal rights, as she is using the naivety of Temeraire understanding of how the world works to voice, through him, questions about animal slavery.

A stylistic irritation throughout all these volumes is the over use of colons and semi-colons; these being usually absent or wrongly used in most author's works. Here, most of them are unnecessary. A full stop (sorry, period) would have been far more appropriate.

Pauline Morgan

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