Reasons for Inclusion: Dragon rights become a major point. As the series goes on, the characters travel around the world and run into many human social justice issues, most especially slavery and colonialism. The cast becomes more and more diverse, and the problems of the Western world are exposed. Women serve in the Aerial Corps alongside men, and many aviators are gay.
NOTE: Some of what I discuss here could be considered spoilers for mid-series plot developments.
Captain William Laurence of the British Navy is content with his ship and his duty to fight the French at sea. And then he comes into possession of a valuable dragon egg, and very soon a hatchling who will accept no other rider.
Laurence at first resents being saddled with young Temeraire, but by the time he’s shipped off to Scotland to begin training, the two are inseparable.
“If you would like to have your ship back,” Temeraire said, “I will let someone else ride me. […] I will not make you stay.” Laurence stood motionless for a moment, his hands still on Temeraire’s head, with the dragon’s warm breath curling around him. “No, my dear,” he said at last, softly, knowing it was only the truth. “I would rather have you than any ship in the Navy.” (His Majesty’s Dragon)
Laurence must now join the Aerial Corps of dragon-mounted fighters, a secretive force he believes to be inferior to his beloved Navy. But he will find his beliefs on this matter, and on many, many other matters, challenged by the experiences that are to come. Having only recently learned that dragons are intelligent, he arrives at Loch Laggan to find a dragon running training drills.
He is further astonished to find women serving in the Corps on equal footing with men. Captain Catherine Harcourt, tough-as-nails veteran Captain Jane Roland, and her daughter Emily Roland feature heavily in the books to come.
The aviators’ secrecy isn’t due to any “moral failings” but rather due to the fact that the British government will never accept that dragons are as intelligent as humans (not to mention, as Temeraire and Perscitia prove, much better at mathematics than the nobles who dismiss them) And they put this intelligence to use.
Temeraire questions society from the beginning. Why can’t he just take those cows from that field? Why does Laurence find it so odd that women fight? Why can’t dragons go to Parliament? Why is sex such a big deal? And why does he have to serve a King he’s never met for the sake of a country that thinks dragons are little more than beasts of burden?
“Some of the laws which I have heard make very little sense, and I do not know that I would obey them if it were not to oblige you. It seems to me that if you wish to apply laws to us, it were only reasonable to consult us on them, and from what you have read to me about Parliament, I do not think any dragons are invited to go there.” (His Majesty’s Dragon)
Laurence, Temeraire, and their friends in the Corps travel around the world in the subsequent books: to China, Turkey, Prussia, southern and central Africa, France, Australia, Brazil, Japan, Russia, and onwards. And these nations have different attitudes about dragons, some far better than Britain’s abuses.
China treats dragons as citizens, and many of their most revered poets and scholars are dragons. When dragons do go to war, their riders are women soldiers. In the United States, dragons can own companies. The clans of feral dragons in Turkey have a language and culture all their own. For the Tswana people in central and southern Africa, dragons are given the greatest respect. In the Incan Empire, dragons own humans.
Yes, the Incan Empire. In Novik’s alternate history, indigenous dragons helped their people fight back against colonizers. The Spanish were pushed out of South America and Mexico, the Native Americans made agreements on equal footing with British colonials, and the fourth book ends with the Tswana running Portuguese slavers out of South Africa. And that’s not the last we hear of them, or of former slave Lethabo who helped organize the revolt.
[Lethabo] had returned hence with Kefentse to direct the search for more Tswana survivors among the slaves on the estates. Brazil had been the destination of nearly all those slavers who had preyed upon the villages of the Tswana before the Tswana’s armies, being roused, had struck against the slave ports of Africa and stifled the trade.
“I think God loves justice better than the letter of the law” (Crucible of Gold)
The third book introduces fan-favorite character Tenzing Tharkay, the son of a Scottish businessman and a Nepalese woman. He becomes one of Laurence’s closest allies even when British society would dismiss a mixed-race man as inferior.
Tharkay speaks of being rejected by both sides of his heritage:
“I have long since been taught that my face and my descent bar me from the natural relations of gentlemen, with no action on my part. And if I am not to be trusted, I would rather provoke a little open suspicion, freely expressed, than meekly endure endless slights and whispers not quite hidden behind my back.”
“…if not only society but all those on whom you might justly have a claim of brotherhood looked upon you with that same disdain, your superior officers and your comrades-in-arms; if all hope of independence and advancement were denied you and, as a sop, you were offered the place of a superior servant, somewhere between a valet and a trained dog.” (Black Powder War)
As the story goes on, Laurence’s party gets more and more diverse. There’s Tharkay, African teenagers Demane and Sipho, and others. And then one of Laurence’s closest friends admits that he’s gay, and so are a lot of other aviators. And the dragons don’t see why anyone should complain.
“Well, why did you speak of it, then?” Iskierka said reasonably. “I did not raise the subject: Immortalis told me we mustn’t do so, although I don’t see why; it is not as though I would allow anyone to arrest you, no matter what. ” (Crucible of Gold)
And that doesn’t even cover the wider political situation as Napoleon advances on Britain with the aid of vengeful Chinese dragon Lien, the “uncooperative” dragons relegated to the British breeding grounds form their own army to defend their nation, and Laurence must again and again choose between his loyalty to King and country and doing what’s right. Britain supports the abuse of dragons, imperialism, slavery, germ warfare… is it worth the loyalty he’s always been taught?
And for anyone concerned that the actions of a white man are given too much focus- they’re not. Far more is done by women, by Chinese, African, and Turkish dragons, by Africans, by the Chinese. Laurence ends up less the protagonist and more along for the ride. He may carry the narration’s point of view (until the fifth book, where he shares it with Temeraire), but he’s not always right. In fact, he’s very often proven wrong.