Book reviews/battle: Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey vs. His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik

My good friend suggested (let me make it clear: it was not a recommendation) that I check out Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey. He had just started reading it, and as I later found out, he wanted someone with whom he could share the rage, disgust, and bafflement.

I should say now that I have other good friends who have fond feelings for books in McCaffrey’s dragon series — since they read them as children. With an adult’s awareness — particularly of gender relation issues — it was a little harder to take.

Okay, a lot harder.

The only thing I really liked about this book was the initial introduction of Lessa, as she skulked around, disguised as a drudge, manipulating everyone to her own purposes and killing anyone put in charge who was too competent. A bit like Varys in A Song of Ice and Fire, yes.

Unfortunately, this was not followed through on, as her eventual partner/rapist F’lar has a habit of shaking her violently whenever he’s upset with her, and she never guts him like I really, really wanted her to.

The one upside is that he never actually breaks her “I do what I want” spirit, though. And she effectively said, “Fuck that” to one of the grossest lines in the book: “Queens only fly to mate.” Excuse you? Imagine telling that to Superman. “Sorry, dude, you can only fly when it’s time for you to mate.” So at least that was refuted. But there was still F’lar’s gross…everything, especially his ambitions of breeding Ramoth…a lot.

I was also surprised by how seriously complex time travel issues were taken, since the rest of the book was not very complex. This book apparently takes place far in the future, but their social systems, gender roles in particular, are so odiously medieval. It’s really hard for me to engage with a book where a woman dies in childbirth and that’s presented as the best thing that could happen to her. But all the characters were so shallow, I never felt invested in them, despite how much I wanted to like Lessa. Also, the whole notion of “threads” as a menace was highly suspect. I kept wondering if it was really just garden-variety rain that reacted weirdly on their planet.

And oh God, how dumb was the spelling of all the dragonriders’ names with apostrophes. So dumb. I experienced the book on audiobook, so in my discussions with my friend, I insisted on spelling the lead male character as Flare (though the narrator pronounced it closer to “Valor”), and had to ask him if a woman was actually named Menorah.

I understand this book was published in 1968, but I’m still shocked it was a success — frankly, that standards were so low at the time. Offensive gender roles aside — the writing is not that great. It oozes melodrama, and it would be a great text to demonstrate excessive telling instead of showing. For example — when Lessa first meets her newly hatched dragon:

Lessa swung the head around so that the many-faceted eyes were forced to look at her…and found herself lost in that rainbow regard.

A feeling of joy suffused Lessa; a feeling of warmth, tenderness, unalloyed affection, and instant respect and admiration flooded mind and heart and soul. Never again would Lessa lack an advocate, a defender, an intimate, aware instantly of the temper of her mind and heart, of her desires. How wonderful with Lessa, the thought intruded into Lessa’s reflections, how pretty, how kind, how thoughtful, how brave and clever!

…Lessa wondered how she knew the golden dragon’s name, and Ramoth replied: Why shouldn’t she know her own name since it was hers and no one else’s? And then Lessa was lost in the wonder of those magnificently expressive eyes.

Okay! Glad that went smoothly. Like an instant dragon-bonding mix. Poof.

My guess is that the reason for its success, and why it’s still remembered nearly fifty years later, is that it’s a prototype of a very popular fantasy feature: dragon/human bonding and adventures.

So I spent most of the book yearning to re-read His Majesty’s Dragon by Naomi Novik, and that’s exactly what I did next.

I first read this book as a teenager, and it stole my heart. It has everything McCaffrey’s book missed — primarily, actual characterization depth for both the humans and the dragons. Showing how the ultra-tight bond develops, rather than just informing us. Fucking awesome defiance of gender roles, even set in the early 1800s!  Laurence has very realistic reactions the first time he sees a female captain. Oh, and just an A+ job of historical fiction, especially in an alternate universe so similar to our own — but with dragons.

Most of all, it hit some of my favorite relationship buttons: the healthier sort of co-dependence and ultra-protectiveness, in particular. I re-read some of those scenes so many times.

I am happy to say my appreciation hasn’t diminished, almost ten years later. I got through this audiobook much faster than usual — partly because I downloaded the files to my phone (legally, mind you) rather than getting physical CDs, so part of my weekend was just spent lying around, listening to it. And then I put a hold on the audiobook of the second book, but that didn’t stop me from pulling my paperback copy off the shelf Saturday night and re-reading the first half of it instead of doing the writing I was really, really supposed to be doing. I only intended to re-read the opening scenes that have some particularly wonderful demonstrations of Laurence/Temeraire’s devotion to each other, but damn, it was so hard to put down. I’m really interested too in the Chinese characters — the young one, Sun Kai, I can’t help but picture as a Chinese Kyouya Ootori (yes, that’s an Ouran High School Host Club shout-out), which makes him awfully attractive (competency is so hot).

I’ve only read three of the sequels, so I can’t wait to devour them again and experience the rest, even though I have heard they diminish in quality, like a lot of series do. I don’t care, give me more Laurence and Temeraire. And expect reviews for the rest of the Temeraire series over this year.

Also, as a connoisseur of awesome opening lines/hooks, I must note that Naomi Novik has an A+ one:

The deck of the French ship was slippery with blood, heaving in the choppy sea; a stroke might as easily bring down the man making it as the intended target. Laurence did not have time in the heat of battle to be surprised at the degree of resistance, but even through the numbing haze of battle-fever and the confusion of swords and pistol-smoke, he marked the extreme look of anguish on the French captain’s face as the man shouted encouragement to his men.

Many points for immediately hooking readers and delivering us not just into literal action, but to the start of the plot (Laurence winning the ship that holds Temeraire’s egg) without any unnecessary “scene-setting” introductions. She introduces the scene, characters, and plot all at once, without wasting words.

Another great line from shortly after Temeraire’s hatching, when Laurence faces how much of his life he’s about to lose, now that this dragon has latched on to him and won’t listen to anyone else:

…and when he contemplated never going to the opera again, he felt a very palpable urge to tip the [dragon-]laden cot out the window.

YES. No instant magic soul-bonding there. And oh, how much do I love it when Temeraire realizes the upheaval he caused Laurence and offers to let someone else ride him, if Laurence would prefer to go back to his ship. That is how you do wonderfully healthy, positive co-dependence.

Things I want now (possibly to write myself): more developed girl/dragon stories. Particularly with dragons that are not docile or obedient, who are like, “No, you are my human,” and snatch them away for their own missions and devices, and in general treat humans like humans treat dragons in most books. (Though Temeraire comes pretty close to doing that with Laurence, often.)

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