"Patrick O'Brian with dragons" is a very apt bite-sized summary of the overall feel of this story. So is "Master and Commander Meets Dragonriders of Pern"--a juxtaposition which might make some cringe, but by gods, it works. Especially because unlike McCaffrey's dragons (love them as I did throughout so much of my childhood and adulthood), Novik's dragons are People.
Go read this book. RIGHT NOW.
Where in the world to begin?
As a big fan of both the Pern books and Patrick O'Brian, the whole concept of this book thrilled me from word one. The delightful characters of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin have gone a very, very long way to give me an affection for the war stories that come out of the Napoleonic era, and I was not at all unhappy to find the book starting off with a bang in the middle of a naval battle. I loved the genuinely military feel of the British aviators, and how our hero, Captain Will Laurence, makes the transition from Navy man to aviator. I loved all of the various ways that Novik figured out how to use a dragon in aerial combat. My Pern fan side was thrilled to see that the general society of aviators and how it stands apart from British society at large hearkened back to the schism of society between Weyr and Hold--with the aviators having a naturally freer society, and even including women in the fighting force. And I had to giggle every time I read of a dragon being washed, because it made me flash back to countless dragon-washing scenes I've roleplayed on PernMUSH. ;)
I will say this to get it out of the way--Novik's prose is not particularly lyrical. She doesn't, for example, have O'Brian's deft way with a word; at no point during the book did I ever find myself thinking "gosh, I really loved how she phrased that". On the other hand, the old adages one frequently hears about how the goodness of something might be measured by how it doesn't call attention to itself apply here. Her prose never thrilled me on its own merits, but it never annoyed me either. Novik was exemplary at letting her prose say what it had to say to convey one hell of a story, and otherwise stay out of the way of the reader.
No wait... I forgot. There IS one thing I really liked, which I will quote here, early on when Laurence apologizes to Temeraire for not affording to be able to give him a heap of gold:
"I should rather have you than a heap of gold, even if it were very comfortable to sleep on," Temeraire said. "I do not mind the deck."
He said it quite normally, not in the least as though he meant to deliver a compliment, and immediately went back to looking at his clouds; Laurence was left gazing after him in a sensation of mingled amazement and extraordinary pleasure. He could scarcely imagine a similar feeling; the only parallel he could conceive from his old life would be if the Reliant had spoken to say she liked to have him for her captain: both praise and affection, from the highest source imaginable, and it filled him with fresh determination to prove himself worthy of the encomium.
Any author who can throw me an unfamiliar word gets prose points, and I had no idea what "encomium" meant. ^_^
Which leads me of course into talking about Laurence and Temeraire, both of whom I loved immensely. I was vexed that Novik underdescribed Laurence, at least in the physical sense. Part of me can appreciate an ethic of sketching in a bare amount of data about a protagonist in order to encourage as many readers as possible to identify with him--but me, I like to at least be told basic details of what a character looks like. Things like oh, say, color of hair and eyes. I got barely an impression of Laurence as a British guy with sunbleached hair and broad shoulders, most likely somewhere in his thirties, since he'd made Captain in the Navy before he gets his dragon. Novik describes the dragon in great and loving detail; it would have been nice to see some of that spread over to his handler, too. ;)
That said, though, I instantly liked Laurence as a person. He was your basic swoonable military hero, conscientious and thoughtful, a good commander, and although he initially takes on Temeraire out of duty and the requirement of keeping him from going feral on board his ship, the above quote gives a very good example of how quickly he takes to Temeraire.
And I loved Temeraire even more. This dragon is a Person. He is intelligent, lively, and curious, and I loved a whole host of things about him. I loved how he had Laurence read to him almost nightly since he couldn't handle books himself, and how more than once he wound up having to explain to Laurence what Laurence was actually reading. Temeraire has his own discussions with a naturalist who tries to identify his breed, since he is a Chinese dragon of a type unknown in Britain. He dictates commentary into Laurence's letters and has Laurence even write a letter on his behalf, once. He has philosophical discussions with Laurence about the nature of duty, and why they can't just bugger off by themselves if they don't like what they're going to find when they show up at the training covert in Scotland to be trained into the aerial forces. Temeraire repeatedly shows inclinations that he's putting up with being among the humans mostly because he loves Laurence and that's where Laurence is.
I especially liked Temeraire's response when Laurence has to explain to him why a discovered traitor will be executed for treason, while his dragon will be spared; Laurence explains that he supposes it is not fair to expect that laws made for mankind should apply to dragons. Temeraire says, "It seems to me that if you wish to apply laws to us, it were only reasonable to consult us on them, and from what you have read to me about Parliament, I do not think any dragons are invited to go there."
The mere thought of dragons looming over Parliament makes me go muahahaha. And at the same time, it makes me go "YES!"--because these dragons are in fact sentient. They are People. I really liked that a dragon called Celeritas is the creature in charge of training young dragons at the Scotland covert, and not any associated human; moreover, he is in a position of authority over humans as well and gives Laurence orders that he is expected to obey. You get the impression more than once, not only from Temeraire but from other dragons as well, that they are accepting living with and fighting for humans mostly out of love for the humans with whom they've bonded--and that if something happened that sufficiently pissed off a dragon, it would in fact bugger off on its own. (I'm now naturally waiting for something to sufficiently piss off Temeraire, and from what I saw in the excerpt from the next book at the tail end of this one, I'm betting we're going to get something in that book! Whee!)
There are several other notable dragons in the plot as well: Maximus (who kept making me snicker just because, of course, I have that particular name so strongly associated in my brain with Russell Crowe), Lily (the first of the dragons we see with a female rider! More on this below), Volatilus (a.k.a. Volly, who comes from an unfortunately extremely stupid breed and whose most notable quote is "Cows!" Hee), and Levitas, who turns out to have an absolute asshole for a rider and who rouses Laurence to wrath on his behalf. Maximus and Lily become especial friends of Temeraire's, and in the conversation I mention above re: laws and Parliament, those three dragons even go so far as to make a pact between themselves that they will come to one another's aid if they ever need help to rescue their riders.
And I must also note, given my remark above about how the only way this book could have appealed to me more would have been if Laurence were a musician, that it hugely charmed me to see several dragons asking for a concert towards the end of the book and how musicians were demonstrating the works of various composers to them. ^_^
Now then, other things I really loved. High, high marks to Novik for not only putting women into the fighting force, but also having not one but two female captains as part of the on-camera cast. This is because one of the dragon breeds, the Longwings, have an exclusive preference for female riders--which is never actually explained, but that's okay, since it's not vital to the plot. There's Catherine Harcourt, Lily's rider, and Jane Roland, rider of Excidium--and Jane is also the mother of Emily, who winds up being one of Laurence's cadets in Temeraire's ground crew. This is especially where I started hearkening back to Weyr society in the Pern books--because the aviators absolutely treat their female comrades as equals, and they have relaxed mores between them as to marriage and the raising of children. It is generally expected that aviators should eventually have a couple of children to train up as potential new riders for their dragons, since dragons do outlive humans and wind up serving with several consecutive riders, and it's easier to deal with if they are riders to whom they've had a chance to grow accustomed. And we do see Jane and Laurence have a tete-a-tete or two, and she is very pragmatic and refreshingly up front about it.
Especially given that the aviators have to keep the presence of women officers a secret from British society at large. We get to see how both Catherine and Jane are vexed by the times they have to present themselves in public functions in 'proper' dress and how they are often mistaken for the wives of male aviators rather than their comrades. And it's the MUSHer in me that says, "Somebody's going to found a MUSH on this series sooner or later, and this is going to give a whole bunch of players oodles of roleplay fodder for female characters." ;)
Last but not least, the battle sequences once Laurence and Temeraire are trained enough to join the fighting forces are suitably gripping. It turns out that a dragon in the air not only carries his or her primary rider but an entire crew as well, gunners and bombers, crew who open fire whenever a dragon closes in on a target--whether it be another dragon, a transport ship, or what have you. There are several tense and exciting scenes where Temeraire, Laurence, and their crew start proving themselves in battle, and towards the end we get to see Temeraire unveil a big surprise ability that helps them win the day--while also setting up the conflict for Book 2.
All in all I could not read this book fast enough. Loved it. Loved it from start to finish, and I am now eagerly awaiting the coming of Throne of Jade, due out at the end of this month!