Imagine if the Napoleonic wars had been fought using an air force... of dragons.
That idea is the root of Naomi Novik's Temeraire series -- an alternate-history fantasy that explores the idea of a Horatio Hornbloweresque navy officer who suddenly finds a dragon uprooting his life. Novik stretches credibility here and there, but the first three volumes of her series are a solid, intelligent, often amusing adventure story.
"His Majesty's Dragon" enters the scene when Captain William Laurence's Reliant captures a French ship -- which turns out to have a dragon egg in its hold. And when the baby dragon hatches, it decides it wants Laurence and no other to be its rider.
Unfortunately, accepting the dragon (now named Temeraire) means giving up his Navy commission and joining the Air Corps -- especially since Temeraire violently rejects the idea of accepting another rider. Both rider and dragon have a lot of learning to do, especially since Laurence has some very unusual ideas about how to treat his dragon. But as the bond between them grows and Temeraire grows rapidly to maturity, the Napoleonic Wars are raging -- and Temeraire's true power hasn't yet been shown.
And in "Throne of Jade," an ill-tempered Chinese prince demands that Temeraire be returned to the Imperial family. Temeraire and Laurence are having none of that -- and when they can't tempt away Temeraire, both dragon and rider are sent to China, along with the prince and his entourage. But the journey is full of storms and assassinations, and China turns out to be no less dangerous as Laurence learns of plot around Temeraire.
Having returned from China, Laurence and Temeraire don't even get to go home before being thrown into "Black Powder War." They're sent straight to Istanbul to pick up three dragon eggs sold to England by the Ottoman Empire -- only to deal with deal with wild dragons (who alone make the book worth reading) a treacherous Sultan, and the vengeful albino dragon Lien.
The Temeraire series is what Christopher Paolini's books SHOULD have been -- a richly-drawn, intelligent series about the bond between a young man and his dragon. Novik still has some rough spots in her first three books ("His Majesty's Dragon" is rather short on plot, "Black Powder War" short on characterization) but they are undeniably fascinating meshes of what 19th century war would have been like if there had been dragons.
She conjures up a pretty fascinating world, giving dragons different breeds, quirks, biological features (they blast acid, fire, even sonic waves), and relationships with their riders (one poor little dragon whose rider treats him like a disposable vehicle). There's even some delving into dragon rights -- are the dragons being treated like slaves?
And despite long stretches of traveling over land and sea (often for months), Novik keeps it interesting with lush, detailed writing and some truly thrilling aerial battles aboard the vast dragons. On land, there's plenty of gentle comic relief ("I am afraid that some of them go there to drink, and keep low company." "Oh, you mean whores!") and lots of messy eating.
Temeraire and Laurence are a study in contrasts. The human is mannered, thoughtful and very tied to society's mores, while the dragon has a child's enthusiasm, curiosity, honesty and stubbornness (and frankly he's an adorable little dragon). There's also a colorful collection of supporting characters -- fellow Corps dragons Lily and Maximus, the malignant Prince Yongxhing, the mysterious Tharkay, and many others.
"Temeraire Volumes 1-3" is a solid trio of alternate history stories, with plenty of adventure, humour and a lot of lovable dragons. Definitely worth flying with.