Tag Archives: Naomi Novik

Here be dragons

I read a couple of Anne McCaffrey books as a kid, but I was never all that into dragons. I like them when they show up in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire — and especially in the HBO Game of Thrones adaptation — but that series is really about the people. Dragons are just a superweapon.

league of dragonsBut in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, dragons are characters and that’s the genius of the series. She just wrapped it up with League of Dragons, and she did it well. Fortunately there are nine books in all so if you’re feeling bereft about the end of the series you can just start from the beginning again, with His Majesty’s Dragon.

I can’t really suggest these books for people who are jonesing for Game of Thrones between TV seasons or the much longer wait between books. The better comparison is with Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series — because both are set in the British service during the Napoleonic wars and have a friendship at heart that is the deepest in both parties’ lives. But Naomi Novik is obviously writing an alternative/fantastical version of history (there are dragons!), which makes it even more fun in a lot of ways. Some dragons only allow women to be their captains/companions. Napoleon ranges even farther afield — all the way to South America. And most importantly, our protagonists and the society as a whole are forced to wrestle with their treatment of the dragons, many of whom are more intelligent than most people. Temeraire is an exceptional dragon, to be sure, but he is expert at mathematics and speaks multiple languages.

Really, these books are best suited for anyone who has ever felt strongly connected to an animal, like a dog or a horse. The fantasy isn’t so much that there are giant, flying reptiles but that your companion from another species could communicate with you directly — and both delight and exasperate you with his or her idiosyncrasies. Dragons, in Novik’s world, are imprinted on the first human who harnesses them and will do everything in their considerable powers to protect that person. Many are intelligent, though they have a weakness for treasure, especially the shiny kind.

That consideration of how dragons should be treated within society as a whole is really the heart of this series, and what elevates it above just another fantasy … with dragons. Though it may have inspired me to give Anne McCaffrey’s books another look (it’s been more than 30 years). And also to finish the Aubrey-Maturin series, which I have been drawing out for well over a decade now.

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Summer reading recs: English court intrigue, Papal court intrigue, dragons meet Napoleon in Russia and literary noir close to home

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Four novels, all set to be published this summer. All four are probably not to most people’s reading taste but they all were to mine.

Queen’s Gambit is the story of Katherine Parr, the final and surviving wife of Henry VIII. She’s got an interesting story and it’s told well both from her perspective and that of a servant, Dot, whom she brings from her own household to serve her when Katherine (reluctantly) becomes Queen. Even if you think you’ve read or watched everything you need to about the Tudors, this is worth a read, especially since it covers a relatively unexamined person and part of the story. Its perspective on Elizabeth is especially interesting, both from Katherine’s view and from Dot’s. As everyone who knows anything about Elizabeth knows, she and her final stepmother were close — until Katherine caught her last husband, the ambitious, vain Thomas Seymour, playing some sort of naughty bed game with the young adolescent Elizabeth. While Katherine was pregnant with his child. I was dreading that part of the story even though I knew it was coming — but Fremantle handles it with an interesting approach. A debut novel by Elizabeth Fremantle, who appears to be a worthy addition to the Tudor-writing historical fiction ranks. The book is scheduled for release on Aug. 6.

Blood & Beauty is about the Borgias, another telegenic Renaissance-era family (also the subject of a pay-cable drama from the same folks who brought us The Tudors). Sarah Dunant sets her books in medieval and Renaissance Italy and the Borgias offer incredible scope. I knew little about them, beyond their historical reputation as a bunch of depraved poisoners — this book provided a much better rounded portrait especially of Lucrezia, daughter of the ambitious Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI). Even her ruthless brother Cesare is understandable, if not necessarily sympathetic. I enjoyed it thoroughly and look forward to the next installment — though it led me to some confusion over the dramatic choices in the Showtime series. But hey, I knew from watching the Tudors that the guy behind those shows is not all that concerned with historical accuracy so I’m going to assume Sarah Dunant’s sticking closer to the record until I learn otherwise. Dunant is probably best known for In the Company of the Courtesan; she may go stratospheric (into Philippa Gregory-like sales levels) with this one. Blood & Beauty publishes July 16.

Blood of Tyrants is speculative/alternative/fantastic historical fiction — the latest and apparently penultimate volume in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series. I’ve blogged about this series before — the previous entry, Crucible of Gold was one of my favorite books from last year — and this is a worthy successor. As it opens, our hero Will Laurence has been shipwrecked on the shores of Japan and has amnesia. So even though most of his shipmates and fellow aviators think he’s dead and “his” dragon, Temeraire, desperately wants to find him, Laurence thinks he’s still an officer in the British Navy and has no memory of the last eight years, ie. the time he’s spent with Temeraire and learned a hell of a lot about dragons (and encountered Napoleon personally, and been court-martialed, and been made a prince in China and nearly died in both Africa and Australia and …  well these are adventure books, OK?). The series is often described as Patrick O’Brian with dragons and that works — it’s set in the British military during the Napoleonic wars. And it is cool to imagine military aviation coming into play a few centuries before it actually did, and how that might have altered things and worked in the culture of the time (few know it outside of the aviation corps, but there are a number of female officers because one particularly valuable breed of dragon, the poison-fanged Longwings, will only abide women as their captains). But the true appeal of the series, for me, is the way it fulfills an animal lover’s fantasy of bonding with intelligent, emotional beings who can, in this world, speak and express their opinons, sometimes irrational as they may seem (all dragons covet treasure and want to see their humans kitted covered in the Regency-era equivalent of bling whenever possible). I found myself, when reading this book, thinking of the relationship I’ve had with dogs and horses and how it often feels like you are holding conversations with them — and how you feel a responsibility for their care and happiness that goes far beyond mere ownership. It will be interesting to see how Novik winds up the series — this book ends with Napoleon on the march in Russia but she has previously shown no problem with materially altering history (Napoleon is currently married to an Incan princess) and kudos to her for the last line, which I won’t spoil here but which has to be a nod to that other dragon-loving fantasy writer, George R.R. Martin. Blood of Tyrants publishes on Aug. 13 — if you haven’t read the previous seven entries in the series, that would make an excellent –and fun! — summer reading project. I will be sorry to see this series end but will try to view it as I do my favorite TV shows when they go away after a few seasons — better to go out with quality than trail on forever just because someone is willing to pay you to do so.

One of these books is not like the others, as the old Sesame Street ditty goes. Men in Miami Hotels is a contemporary noir, set in Key West but it’s a wholly different creature from the usual subtropical mystery/detective novel — it has more in common with the work of Thomas McGuane than Carl Hiaasen or James Hall. Cot Sims is a journeyman gangster for a Miami crime lord. He returns to his hometown of Key West to help his mother, who has been kicked out of her hurricane-damaged home by code enforcers and is camped out underneath. It is recognizably Key West in a lot of keenly observed ways, though a smaller less transient — and more violent — island than the real one (it appears to be a Key West inhabited entirely by Conchs and visiting Miami gangsters). Sims quickly gets himself into serious trouble by stealing a bunch of emeralds from his Miami crime boss and is basically on the lam from then on, throughout Key West, mainland South Florida and eventually Havana. I particularly liked the action in the cemetery, where Cot spends some time hiding out in a friend’s family crypt. I’ll admit that I admired this book but didn’t find it captivating the way some crime fiction that is considered genre can captivate me (most recently, Lyndsay Faye’s Gods of Gotham). But for those who prefer their crime with a more literary approach, or who read in order to admire language, this is a great read and I hope it finds its audience. It deserves to. Men in Miami Hotels will be released July 2.

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Is this just fantasy?

Best lists aren’t just for the end of the year — and they’re not just for professional book critics, either. Right now, NPR has a fun exercise going, compiling a list of the 100 best science fiction and fantasy books ever written. They’re soliciting suggestions (five titles at a time) from listeners/readers and in four days they’ve received more than 4,600 posts. Take that, all you reading-is-dead handwringers!

There are a couple rules — you can suggest a series as one of your entries, as long as that series is written by a single author. And YA is banned, which made it a little difficult for me because Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy and Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy would have been high on my list.

Still, even though I would not consider myself a big reader of scifi or fantasy, I managed to come up with five. * Here’s my list, in no particular order: Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series (always glad to give this one a mention; it’s alternative historical fiction, Napoleonic wars with dragons and it’s AWESOME). Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, a loopy literary alternaworld to which I will be forever grateful for getting me through the Horrible Hurricane Year of 2005. Doomsday Book by Connie Willis — highly recommended for people who like medieval stuff and/or time travel. American Gods by Neil Gaiman, which needs no help from me but is pretty cool, and will soon be a major motion picture. And The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas, a book about a book that is powerful and strange. Both books, I mean. Just read it.

If you are into books, by the way, and you don’t follow or check NPR’s books coverage (it’s compiled at their website and has the requisite Facebook and Twitter feeds) then you are missing out. And if you prefer to get your radio auditorially but can’t listen to NPR all day long, they do a nice podcast of compilations of their books coverage every week or two.

The Guardian, another bastion of book coverage in the popular media, has also compiled a 100 best list recently, their picks for best nonfiction titles. They solicited reader suggestions after the fact; my contribution was The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen. Amazing book about biodiversity and evolution and island biogeography and if those sound like heavy, dry subjects then trust me, in Quammen’s hands they are not. If and when I have to do a serious weed of my own book collection, this will be one of the last to go.

* Addendum from 8/18/11 — Since writing this I have joined the George R. R. Martin Cult and am midway through the third book in his Song of Ice and Fire series — and they really as addictive as everyone says. Martin didn’t need my help — he still scored high on the final list — and I’m not sure which of my initial five I’d knock out. Either American Gods or the Thursday Next series, which is loopier than straight-up fantasy anyway.

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Oh yeah — dragons again

I’ve already gushed several times about my fondness for Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series — it’s the Napoleonic Wars … with dragons! Which sounds a bit silly but as someone who’s not a frequent reader of fantasy, I found the series enthralling. I was tipped to it, by the way, from an unlikely source — the romance site Smart Bitches Trashy Books, where I was scanning through their highly graded reviews (of which there are not that many — unlike most romance sites, these women are tough graders). I came across the review for His Majesty’s Dragon, the first book in the series, and was intrigued, even though I don’t think I’d read anything with dragons since an Anne McCaffrey book or two when I was a kid and they didn’t really stick. Harry Potter doesn’t count. Anyway I rushed through the first five … and then had to stop and wait for Novik to publish her next one. Which finally happened this month, and I wanted it so badly that I downloaded it onto my Kindle and read it.

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