Crucible of Gold, Naomi Novik
This is the seventh book in Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, which could be described as "the Napoleonic Wars with dragons." Though I have loved books about dragons ever since I discovered Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea books and Anne McCaffrey's Pern novels (at least the early ones), I was somewhat hesitant to try Novik's books, which I'd also seen described as "Patrick O'Brian with dragons." But I was instantly hooked from the first pages of the first book, His Majesty's Dragon.
In her alternate history, dragons were domesticated millenia ago, by the Romans, the Chinese, and the Japanese, among others. There are many different breeds, with different capabilities, but most of the domestic breeds are intelligent and capable of human speech. At least among the European breeds, a dragonet put "under harness" and formally named at hatching bonds with a human partner, who trains the young dragon, especially for war. In this world, the dragons are aerial weapons, both for offense and defense, with the British dragons organized into an Aerial Corps under their own officers, up to admirals. Despite the importance of the dragons, though, neither they nor the Corps are popular; ancient fears of dragons run too deep. In one of my favorite twists, one breed will accept only female captains, so women serve in the Corps on active duty and with equal rank, though this is a closely-guarded secret.
Naomi Novik is a big fan of both Jane Austen and Patrick O'Brian, and it shows. In His Majesty's Dragon, which I think the best of the series, we are introduced to Captain Will Laurence of the Royal Navy just as his ship is capturing the French ship Amitié. In its hold the crew discovers a large dragon's egg, close to hatching. Laurence realizes that one of his officers must attempt to harness the dragonet, since England needs every dragon she can muster in the fight against Napoleon and France. To his dismay, the baby dragon turns to him. Realizing that this means the end of his naval career, Laurence accepts his duty and harnesses him, naming him "Temeraire" after a famous dreadnought. It costs him even more when his father Lord Allendale all but disowns him and the woman he loves breaks their informal engagement. The later discovery that Temeraire is a rare Chinese Celestial dragon, intended as a gift for Napoleon, proves some consolation, but Laurence finds more in Temeraire himself, a dragon of rare ability and a warm heart, and the two form a strong partnership.
They have had many adventures over land and sea in these seven books, which have taken them to China, Africa, and in the sixth book to Australia. At times they have taken their part in the wars against Napoleon, as part of a fighting wing. At others they have gone their own way, facing dismissal from the service and even charges of treason. Both Laurence and Temeraire (who has studied political and economic theory, among other topics) are stubborn, refusing to act against their conscience or to allow the ends to justify the means. They are classic square pegs, unable to fit easily into the round holes of the service that desperately needs them. The narration alternates between Laurence's and Temeraire's points of view, and Novik gives each his distinct voice and personality, as indeed she does with all the major characters, dragon and human alike. Laurence is especially interesting to me. Among the rough and ready Corps, he tries to maintain naval-style discipline (without resorting of course to the cat); he tries always to act as a gentleman, with an endearing formality that brings to mind Jane Austen's Captain Wentworth and Mr. Knightley.
In Crucible of Gold, Laurence and Temeraire, who had been exiled to Australia, are asked to join an embassy to Brazil. Napoleon is bringing in fierce dragons to attack the Portuguese interests there, which may force their government to divert resources from Europe, where Wellington is preparing for the Peninsula campaign. But their embassy is diverted in turn to the western side of the vast continent, where the Incan empire still holds sway. In this world, the Incan dragons proved more than a match for the Spanish conquistadors, though European diseases still decimated the population.
I enjoyed this book so much. It is fast-paced and full of action, with shipwrecks and mutinies and dragon battles and naval actions, and even pirates. And it brings together old friends and comrades in arms (or in the air) from previous books. This would not be a good introduction to the series, though, building as it does on the complex backstory of the six previous books, as well as the large cast of continuing characters (including Napoleon himself). It is the penultimate book in the series; Novik has announced that the eighth book will be the last, and I will be so sorry to see it published, while already anxious to read it and see where it takes Laurence and Temeraire next.