Thursday, July 13, 2006

Intimate Adventure with Dragons

Many SF and fantasy authors have written about bonds between dragons and human partners, notably Anne McCaffrey and more recently Mercedes Lackey in her Joust series. The latest series along this line, Naomi Novik's alternate history set during the Napoleonic Wars (Horatio Hornblower with dragons!), beginning with HIS MAJESTY'S DRAGON, portrays a deeply committed relationship between a dragon, Temeraire, and his aviator captain, Will Laurence, entirely from Laurence's viewpoint. In addition to the fascinating world-building and dragon biology and psychology, this story fits into the category of Intimate Adventure, a new genre defined by Jacqueline Lichtenberg at This proposed genre category, which crosses existing genres but is often found in Action/Adventure, replaces "Action" with "Intimate." The true core of the story focuses on the development of a relationship (not necessarily a romantic one -- often not, in fact) rather than on the outward action. As Jacqueline says:

"Instead of combat to the death on the field of Battle, the Protagonist must face trials and dangers, terrors and tests on the field of Intimacy.

"Instead of weapons of combat (guns, knives, swords, cudgels), the protagonist must wield the weapons of Life -- emotions, psychology. The protagonist must solve the problem faced in the world outside the Mind with the weapon of Emotional Honesty within the Self and within the Relationship."

In Novik's alternate world, dragons are used for aerial warfare to support armies and navies. Although ridden like cavalry horses, most have intelligence at least equal to human. They learn languages in the egg, from the speech around them, and hatch already speaking. Unless harnessed at hatching, they become feral and refuse to speak with human beings. A dragon bonds with the person who harnesses it, like a chick imprinted upon a parent figure at hatching, and the handler gives the dragon its name. It's clear that, although dragons could not possibly be compelled to obey people, they seem to need this relationship and gladly follow the directions of their human partners.

Aviators are regarded as an eccentric, rakish lot (unknown to the general public, they even allow women to serve in the Corps!), viewed with mild suspicion by the upper classes. An aviator's profession precludes the normal life of a gentleman. They live in areas remote from cities, with plenty of space for the quartering and training of dragons. Managing a landed estate would be impossible, marriage and a family very difficult. Laurence, a ship's captain in the British Navy, captures an egg from a French ship. To his dismay, the newly hatched dragon chooses him as a partner. Duty requires him to resign his naval commission and become an aviator, dedicating his life to the young dragon.

Despite his initial reluctance, he quickly grows to love Temeraire, who fiercely returns his devotion. The series (three books so far) exemplifies the theme of deep-rooted affection between members of two different species, a friendship with no possibility of romantic love. Although like a child at first, Temeraire grows so quickly he soon becomes more of a partner. Laurence discovers that dragons are not beasts like horses but complex, sapient individuals. He also comes to understand why being an aviator is not simply a career but an all-consuming way of life. The story focuses on the development of a relationship between equals bridging a radical unlikeness. By the second book, THRONE OF JADE, the officer who originally resented the loss of his naval career to a dragon has become willing to go to China, forsaking everything he knows, rather than be separated from Temeraire. The discovery of how dragons in China are respected and integrated into society confronts Laurence with a fresh crisis of conscience, continuing into BLACK POWDER WAR. His sense of justice and love for Temeraire incline him toward supporting the young dragon's determination to promote the rights of English dragons, but he feels his duty requires that such demands for social and political equality, and the upheaval they would provoke, be postponed for the duration of the war.

The publisher thoughtfully released all three novels at once (and in paperback, so we could afford them!). Now, however, we have to wait until sometime next year for a new installment. Very difficult to bear, when there's a teaser chapter in the back of the third book! Although this series isn't romance, it's a riveting tale of human-alien intimacy.


  1. That's interesting!

    Anne McCaffrey's son was at Westercon and we had quite a discussion in the Green room one time, though I wasn't on a panel with him.

    I wish I'd known to ask about this new series -- it is so very much like Perne!

    Note, though, that none of the particulars you've sited are actually copyrightable.

    Even so, I wouldn't expect any publisher to accept such books. Is there anything in them that seems like a tribute to McCaffrey?

    And note, McCaffrey herself wrote many very intimate relationships -- The Ship Who Sang for example -- which today might have been published as romance!

    Is it Alien Romance when one of the lovers is a human brain preserved and installed in a machine?

    Could you fall in love with your SHIP???

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg

  2. Jacqueline wrote: Could you fall in love with your SHIP???
    I dunno. Many a guy loves his car... ::wink wink::

    I think one of Susan Kearney's books explores that theme from a romance aspect. Other SF writers have as well.

    I know I have a love-hate relationship with my computer... ;-)

    [side note--does anyone besides me see the 'word verification' words needed to post here to be an alien language? This one is qaimerf. I like the sounds of that but I'm not sure if it's a derogatory epithet or a brand of alien beer...]


  3. No, Naomi Novik's series doesn't "feel" much like the Pern series at all. I think of it as "Horatio Hornblower with dragons," which is the series with, to me, the most similar "feel" -- the captain who has great courage and an outstanding combat record but a more sensitive, introspective outlike on life than most of his comrades in the military services. Other than the bonding with the newly hatched dragon, it doesn't contain any elements that, to me, appear to be influenced by McCaffrey -- and that motif, of course, has been used by several other authors. Of the Ship series, most of them seem to fall under friendship-type Intimate Adventure. The McCaffrey-Lackey collaboration, however (I can't remember the title right now -- wait, I think it's THE SHIP WHO SEARCHED) is definitely a romance.