Throw a dragon in any book, and you're sure to catch my attention. After that, the writing has to keep it.
We are introduced to the Nopoleanic Wars set in a world where dragons are used for aerial combat. Of the various breeds, the Chinese produce the best and most prized. When such a dragon is seized from a French frigate, the English rejoice as if a major battle had been won.
Not everyone is happy by the news. The dragon is about to hatch, and the crew of the Temereraire must subject themselves to selection by the dragon, or it would become feral and only useful for breeding.
The remainder of the story revolves around dragon and handler (the selected human), the bond they forge, and the training they endure to defenders of England. This, mixed with the low regard of anyone in the aerial corps, puts the main character through rejections, forces him to sacrifice all he has worked toward, and assimilating into the new life as a dragon handler.
The story has a good plot, an interesting premise, and dragons. What more could I want?
Novik does a commendable job of constructing a competent story. The prose is clean, and the pacing consistent. What lacked was emotion. The story is written in third person limited with a distant voice. Instead of describing the main characters (there are two) emotions, we are told they exist. The "telling" detracted from immersion and distanced my experience to where I could analyze every detail of the story. I found other flaws.
Although the premise was sound, the logic behind it didn't settle. Dragon intelligence varies as much as human, but it is clear that all are sentient, self aware, and have free will. Yet they seem completely under the control of humans. Even the feral breeders do not simply fly away. What's worse, none ask themselves why they are fighting a war between two human groups and baring the brunt of the sacrifice? Why are they asked to kill each other for the sake of another species?
There are more gripes about the dragons, but I won't dwell on them. I will, however, focus on the relationship between the two main characters Laurence the dragon handler and Temeraire the dragon. The deeper I got into the story, the more their bond grated on me. It is clear their love for one another grows, but the sentiment between them felt a bit much. As if the author wanted to showcase a utopian platonic male relationship by using a human and a dragon.
But the human is asking the dragon to kill for the sake of his nation. And the dragon is a dragon. How is it that such a ferocious, self aware, and highly intelligent beast becomes nothing more than a motherly puppy in the presence of this tiny human? Temereraire barely voices any complaints or challenges the control of an inferior being. He isn't caged, chained, bound by magic, or similarly forced to service. Yet he happily does as his master bids, even if it is thinly veiled behind affectionate acceptance.
Perhaps my preconceived ideas of dragons interfered with the enjoyment of this story. Even though, I think the author should have invested further thought into dragons, the advantages they have, and their motivation as self aware, free thinking beings. As it stands, they served as nothing more than a target for the dragon handlers affection.