Welcome to our first Behn’s Badass Bibliotheque summer book group post! Alaina Pincus, general editor of ABO Public, and Shea Stuart, 18th Century and Pop Culture section editor, discuss His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik, which is the first book in her Temeraire series. The novel is a fantasy set during the Napoleonic Wars in which dragons exist and fight against the French in England’s Aerial Corps.
Enjoy the conversation and contribute your thoughts in the comments!
Question 1: Many 18th and 19th century novels explore the theme of duty vs. desire, usually via a marriage plot. How does Novik rework this theme?
Shea: I first read this novel after hearing about it on a science fiction and fantasy book podcast, Dragon Page. The podcast hosts interviewed Naomi Novik who described the book as Jane Austen with dragons. While it isn’t exactly Austen, it is her time-period and the naval officers of Laurence and Temeraire’s world could be her brothers. It is a lovely bit of “What if?” – what if the Napoleonic Wars had been fought with historically non-existent technology (in this case, dragons) and how would that affect the outcome?
One thing I love about this book is how it addresses that perennial 18th century question of duty vs. desire. While most books of the time period frame that question as heterosexual love vs. familial duty, Novik’s novel frames it as love and affection between dragon and handler vs. duty to the nation, empire, and king. It allows a fresh look at what can be a tired trope for those who study the 18th century novel and it allows for a different type of relationship to be centralized. Laurence and Temeraire have at times a parent-child relationship and that of siblings at others. For one funny and uncomfortable moment in the novel, their relationship is erotic. Like heroines of 18th century novels, Laurence must choose between love and duty, but, once he chooses Temeraire wholeheartedly, the trope takes another turn. United, Temeraire and Laurence then have to repeatedly affirm their commitment to their king and country. Temeraire then becomes the more rebellious one, and in future novels, he becomes a dragon rights revolutionary.
Alaina: I first heard about this book when Shea recommended it to me a couple years ago! I’ve actually had the audiobook for ages, but didn’t listen to it until we decided on it for our first book club entry.
I don’t feel like the novel makes an easy split between duty and desire. Laurence initially takes on Temeraire out of duty alone, knowing that if he or his crew fails to harness the dragon, it will be a great loss for his nation. In doing so, he sacrifices his social standing and his sort-of fiancee. His choice may have been fueled by duty, but I never got the sense that his desire was fully centered on either his family, his social standing, or his love of Edith. In many ways, his connections to all three seem to stem more from a sense of familial duty, with exceptions perhaps being his love for his mother and a certain affection for Edith, although not enough to ever actually come to the point and marry her. Instead, Laurence’s desire is centered upon his love of the navy, a profession that came to symbolize the strength of the British Empire. At the same time, the navy certainly has homoerotic associations for contemporary readers, if not for citizens of the eighteenth century. In a sense, then, his love for his country is characterized a queer. When Laurence chooses Temeraire, the queer aspects of his love for country are cemented as he enters a community in which all social mores are the opposite of the what he’s used to, and what counts as good and moral turn out to be the exact opposite of it is outside the aerial corps (I’m looking at you, Rankin!). Laurence’s stubborn refusal to give up Temeraire at the behest of the corps seems turns the trope again on its head. Outside of the corps, his relationship with his dragon makes him an outcast in polite society, yet within the corps, it does the same. And even though both are painted as being choices of duty, Laurence’s stubborn refusal to give up Temeraire to a more experienced captain can’t actually be seen as proper duty, since Temeraire would not have cooperated, and so all Laurence could do was choose to stay with him.
Question 2: Dragons, as awesome as they are, usually are not just dragons. How do dragons represent marginalized peoples in the text?
Alaina: I feel like this theme really develops more fully in the later novels. What we see here is that the dragons, despite being viewed as dumb animals by the admiralty and much of British society, are clearly fully sentient and rational beings. Anyone familiar with British history and with literary tropes will be able to anticipate that Temeraire and Laurence are going to have to agitate for dragon’s rights. I think the thing that most drove the connection between between dragons and slavery for me was when the corps tries to separate Laurence and Temeraire. Even as it acknowledges the importance of the bond between dragon and captain, the corps thinks it ultimately isn’t that important. Dragons and riders can be separated as easily as partners and families of slaves, so long as it suits the needs of their owners, er…commanding officers.
Shea: Yes! Later, Laurence and Temeraire will visit China, Australia, and various locales that also drive home themes of colonization and Otherness. We meet dragons from all over the world and Temeraire is moved by his visit “home” to China that he becomes a dragon rights activist. We see women in the corps because their dragons won’t accept anyone else. We see dragons and captains in more intimate relationships than they will ever have with partners. Dragons stand in for people who would otherwise not be represented in eighteenth-century society.
Question 3: Laurence and Temeraire at times have a paternal relationship, sometimes a friendship, sometimes a quasi-erotic relationship. How do you categorize their relationship? How does it change throughout the novel?
Alaina: I have to admit that for me, their relationship is homoerotic from start to finish. Ok, maybe at the beginning it’s parental, but the friendship seems to me to be part and parcel of their quasi-romantic feelings for each other. Laurence and Temeraire connect on an emotional and intellectual level, in a way that Laurence clearly never did with Edith, and doesn’t even do with Jane Roland.
Shea: The relationship between dragon and captain is certainly stronger than any other types of relationships in the novel. It is certainly a nod to Anne McCaffrey’s Pern series (see Alaina’s comment below) in which dragon and rider share a psychic bond. Laurence calls Temeraire his “dear” and is able to show him affection and warmth in ways he could not in a society ballroom with a lady he is supposed to court and marry.
Question 4: In what ways does Novik adapt established tropes about dragons to suit the needs of her historical setting? How do other generic markers Novik adopts from fantasy, military, historical, and adventure fiction shape the narrative? What new tropes does Novik establish? Have any of these yet made their way into other fiction you’ve read?
Alaina: Here’s where I’m totally going to geek out. This book reminds me so much of Anne McCaffery’s Dragon Riders of Pern series in terms of how it characterizes the relationship between humans and dragons and in terms of the culture of the Aerial Corps. In both series, the dragons are as (sometimes more) intelligent as humans, they need to be impressed/harnessed and fed quantities of food immediately upon hatching, and they form deeply emotional and erotic relationships with their human companions. In McCaffery, the eroticism is tied to dragon’s mating cycle. Because the riders bond with their dragons on a psychic level, they become uncontrollably aroused by their dragons’ arousal. Whichever dragons mate, the two riders usually end up in bed together. In the early novels, the only dragons who mate are the female queens, always ridden by a woman, and the male bronze dragons, always ridden by men. Because the dragonriders have little control over which dragons mate, they have much looser attitudes about sex and sexuality than the other Pernese, and in fact, most of them don’t marry. If they have children, they rely on a fostering system. In later books, McCaffery reveals that the female green dragons, which are almost universally ridden by men, go on mating flights even if they don’t lay eggs. Because they mate with male dragons ridden by men, homosexuality is accepted to varying degrees. McCaffery has some weird essentialist notions about effeminacy and which riders “naturally” impress green or even blue, dragons, but most fans disregard these ideas because it interferes with LARPING (and because plenty of them just don’t agree with McCaffery’s outdated politics).
Novik has eliminated the psychic connections between dragons and riders, and thus the shared mating experience. Instead, the eroticism of the dragon/rider relationship is buried beneath layers of social mores in keeping with late eighteenth-century British culture. Laurence and Temeraire’s desire is sublimated into a deep emotional bond that prevents them from forming similar ties to anyone else. Even as Laurence takes Jane Roland as a lover and ultimately befriends Granby, his connections to them remain constrained by the social codes of the Aerial Corps and by his own continued adherence to naval culture, which enforces a strict chain of command. Even though the rules of of the corps are much looser than the rest of British society, the characters are still products of their time and culture. For Laurence, having been raised in a noble family and serving in the Navy (which Novik points out has been deliberately reformed to be more “genteel” over the past century), he struggles in this book to shed the inhibitions his upbringing and career and have instilled in him. Having been in the corps since childhood, Granby and Jane Roland have far fewer inhibitions. And yet, Roland’s primary interest is in her dragon and Granby’s is in getting a dragon. Even more, Laurence’s status as outsider prevents lower ranked officers like Granby from befriending him.
I wanted to talk too about Novik’s use of tropes from military and naval fiction, but I feel like I’ve said enough about genre. If anyone wants to discuss other genres in comments, though, that’d be awesome!
Shea: First, I love the McCaffrey geek out! I think McCaffrey’s concept that the bond between dragon and rider means neither is ever alone again comes out in these secondary relationships. Laurence has sex with Jane Roland and eventually comes to trust and befriend Granby, but his status as a gentleman means he always has distance between himself and others. With Temeraire, however, Laurence finds a partner who is superiors to himself. It both subverts gender and marital norms and creates a true loving relationship without barriers.
Question 5: How does Britain’s relationship with dragons shape its imperial ambitions and reflect national identity?
Shea: Apparently, dragons too have national identities. French dragons have certain attributes, English others. We find that Temeraire is unique among English dragons because he is actually a Chinese Imperial. His egg is discovered on a French frigate because Napoleon needs an Imperial to form his empire. Dragons here again could be a representation of other ideas and concepts — the opium trade and subsequent wars, the importation of tea and how it changed England, etc.
Question 6: What types of gender roles do we see in the novel and how do they differ from traditional 18th century gender roles?
Shea: This is where the doublethink necessary to read the novel is strongest. If this were a real eighteenth-century novel, women most likely would not be captains. (Unless Eliza Haywood had written it. Then Laurence may have stumbled on an all-woman Corps determined to use dragons to avenge themselves on all men.) As a 21st century novel, women must be characters and involved. Novik solves the dilemma by creating female Corps captains who are national secrets. She maintains the realism of the historical setting while acknowledging the times have moved on. (In some ways, Laurence is a time-traveler — an 18th century gentleman and officer thrust into a fantasy world with women in pants.) It’s rather interesting, however, that Jane Roland appears in Laurence’s life soon after the erotic scene with Temeraire. Novik published the novel in 2006, but scifi and fantasy have never shied away from same-sex relationships. Roland seems a “safe” outlet introduced at a convenient moment. She also is pragmatic and up-front about her sexual availability which marks her as both a 21st century woman and an 18th century anomaly. She is neither wife nor prostitute yet has characteristics of both roles.
Alaina: Haywood would so have written the Aerial Corps as entirely female! She probably would also have it take on Napoleon head on in the first book and defeat him through some sort of twisted deception that plays on his own arrogance. The necessity of female captains in a world that also necessitates far less formality among the ranks that the rest of British society acts as a great equalizer and breaks down easy distinctions of gender roles. But, I would agree that Jane Roland is another way for Laurence to sublimate any homoerotic desire. It’s worth noting too that Laurence easily mistakes the majority of female captains (and children like Emily Roland), for men until he interacts with Catherine Harcourt at dinner–breakfast? Although Novik makes clear that the women captains don’t hide their gender within the corps, they do adopt masculine dress and the same easy manners and familiarity as their male counterparts. Today’s readers will likely identify much more with Jane Roland than the do with Edith (I know I do) and so won’t necessarily read her as less-than-feminine or in need of the “gentlemanly condescension,” which Rankin tries to force on Catherine. And really, I don’t think Laurence necessarily reads Jane as in need of any of the trappings of femininity–in fact, the lack of those trappings is part of her appeal.
Thanks for participating and reading along! Please join the conversation by posting a comment. Check back soon for our next Behn’s Badass Bibliotheque summer book announcement.
Shea Stuart is an associate professor of English at Gardner-Webb University and the 18th Century and Pop Culture section editor at ABOPublic. When not teaching and writing, she is on a bike. Connect with her on Twitter at @terfle or on WordPress at profmamamusings.wordpress.com.