Where does a 50 tonne dragon sit? Anywhere it wants.

I’ve just finished reading Empire of Ivory, the fourth book in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, and it is delightful.  It’s rare that the fourth book in a series is as thrilling as the first, but Empire of Ivory broadens the focus from the protagonists to their world, and the result is epic and majestic.

The series is bit like a cross between Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin books and McAffrey’s Dragonriders, a sort of historical fantasy.  If you have not read any of Novik’s Temeraire books, I strongly recommend them, but you may wish not to read this article as it contains spoilers for the first book, His Majesty’s Dragon.

In Novik’s books, the Napoleonic war is underway, as it was in our more familiar history, with an additional front: the air battle is fought by dragons.  No nation’s military defence is complete without a dragon corps, and although dragons are not easy to either feed, or house, they are a military necessity, and thus England has adapted, to some extent, to co-habiting with these immense carnivores.

The stories are told from the point of view of Laurence, a gentleman of good family who holds every opinion he ought; which is to say he’s patronizing, condescending, and bigoted, but well meaning and honourable.  These opinions are explicitly contrasted by Temeraire, the dragon Laurence captains.  Dragons, as a breed, do not seem much impressed with anything they cannot confirm for themselves, and Temeraire’s only prejudice is his smug sense of superiority.  The contrasts between Laurence’s and Temeraire’s perspective both highlights and critiques the mores of the period.

The gender roles in Novik’s world are precisely what one would expect from nineteenth century England in every sphere but one: England’s most prized breed of dragon, the Longwing, will accept only female captains.  This is not widely known outside the aviators corps, and as female captains wear trousers, and no one would expect a woman to be in the military riding dragon-back, it is a secret easily kept.

However, within the aviators ranks, women enjoy something very like equality.  Dragons are long lived, and captains are not, so it is the custom to pass down captaincy within the family.  Every Captain is expected to produce an heir, so the women who captain dragons are given a great deal of sexual discretion.

Laurence is continually confronted with the shocking reality of women in trousers, women in authority, and sexually aggressive women.  He is not so stupid he cannot acknowledge the necessity of this, but he is heavily acculturated, and constantly struggles with his chivalrous, useless, social training.

This is most evident in his dealings with Jane Roland, captain of Excidium, and mother of Emily, one of his cadets.  Jane is forthright, battle-scarred, and his senior, all of which Laurence respects, and yet, he cannot quite give up the feeling that she really ought to be in skirts practising embroidery and safe from the risks of battle.  Jane, of course, finds this highly comical and not at all desirable.  As the story progresses, Laurence is able to see that Jane does not get the respect she deserves from the admiralty, on account of her sex, and over the course of the story, Laurence has a slow awakening to the injustices of his society.

This story is a wonderful read, and only in part because it adds women to what would otherwise be a men-only adventure.  But the women sure don’t hurt.


  1. Gategrrl says

    Huh. I remember when I read the first three books, I thought the integration of the women into the story appreciated, yet, somehow, clumsy. The ‘romance’ between Laurence and Roland felt much too comtemporary, almost sticking out like a sore thumb.

    I kept getting caught out on the question of, would the men in charge during those days have bowed to expediency in order to allow women into not only combat, but a position of command? Somehow…I don’t think so. (although I’m no historian) I could see men telling the woman “captain” what to do via a ‘second-in-command’, and be ordered to marry/procreate with whom they order them to. I wouldn’t have pictured the mild situation Novik pictured in her book.

    Other than that, the Temeraire books have been one of the best reads I’ve had in a looong time. She’s a wonderful writer.

  2. Betty says

    You’re right, I think a more nominal female “captain” would be more easily accepted, and seem more palatable to the mores of England. However, I wonder if the England of Queen Elizabeth (when, I believe the tradition was instituted?) would have been able to accept a female captain more easily?

    I think Novik does a few times ignore barriers to women’s participation in the military, and the verisimilitude may suffer, but I’m wiling to put up with that for the sake of more parts for women.

  3. Gategrrl says

    From what I know of Elizabethan culture, the Queen was the Queen, and other women were…mere women. Like Victoria, she wasn’t a feminist, nor did she encourage feminism. She got to be Queen by dint of her ancestry and not her sex, and other politcal machinations at the time.

    I did appreciate Novik’s attempts to weave women into the fabric of the story, but, having the dragons be members of a military branch does lead to a male-dominated storyline.

  4. Technocracygirl says

    I didn’t see anything wrong with the near equality of the women captains for a very big reason. They belong to their dragons. Longwings aren’t any less possessive than Temeraire is (look at how Lily frets over Harcourt in EoI) and they have a great deal of power (Lily eats with Maximus and Temeraire; she’s a heavy.) And a curious Longwing is going to get persnickity about some man who’s not her captain having command over her. Not to mention the problems Lily’s squadron has in and before the Battle of Dover when the Longwing isn’t in command of the wing.

    There’s also the facts that the captains (and by extension, the rest of the air corps) are a thousand times less formal than the army or navy of the time, and they’ve been having female captains for two hundred years or so. Put the three things together, and it seems plausible that women could be human beings in the British Air Corps. (But not women.)

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