We often think of worldbuilding in terms of creating entire new worlds from the ground up, but there are other options. That’s why today we’re dissecting the worldbuilding in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series. Her setting doesn’t have a fancy name because it’s set on our very own Earth, circa early 19th century, with a few speculative elements thrown in. And by “a few” I mean a lot. And by “elements” I mean dragons.
That’s right: Temeraire is a Napoleonic Wars story with dragons. That means flintlock muskets, ships of the line, great serpents sweeping the sky, and, of course, comedy based on upper-crust Georgian social etiquette. I’m a big fan of these books, especially the affectionate bond between protagonist Lawrence and his scrappy dragon companion, the titular Temeraire. But what about the worldbuilding? Does it pass muster, or will it go down like a sinking French frigate?
The Temeraire books are alternate-history fantasy, so Novik has a very different job than an author of high fantasy or space opera does. She’s not constructing an entire world from scratch but implementing how her speculative elements will affect her chosen time period. In some writing circles, there’s a perception that this is easier than the kind of worldbuilding practiced by Tolkien or Lewis, but I assure you it isn’t. The real world is incredibly complicated, and every change an author introduces will ripple out in ways that are difficult to predict. That said, let’s look at what Novik does well.
A challenge for anyone looking to write historical fiction is that, in human terms, history is a nightmare. That’s not to say the modern day is anything close to sunshine and roses, but at least the worst excesses of the past like overt colonialism and imperialism tend to be frowned on. Most historical fiction authors either ignore these horrors or revel in them, neither of which is ideal. Ignoring historical problems contributes to the false sanitization of the past, but reveling in those problems often results in trauma porn at marginalized readers’ expense.
Fortunately, Novik has a solution: fight colonialism with dragons. That’s not a metaphor. In the early 1800s of Novik’s world, a lot of people are doing much better than in real life because they have dragons to help them resist European imperialism. The Inca Empire still exists, and many native peoples in North America retain their ancestral land. China is still a world power rather than on the brink of losing its autonomy, and the nations of Africa stand ready to resist incursions into their lands.
Not only does this make for a less dismal story, but it’s also great for facilitating a diverse cast. The story’s main characters are officers of the British dragon corps, and it’s much easier for Novik to include interactions with characters of color in a world that isn’t completely overrun with colonization. But most importantly, this worldbuilding choice allows Novik to focus on the liberation of dragons themselves.
You see, dragons are essentially enslaved by humans in this setting, at least in Europe. Fighting against that enslavement is a major part of the story, and it serves the series well. But it would have been a lot harder for readers to get invested in the fight for dragon rights if it were set against a backdrop of human beings suffering under colonialism.
Uses for Dragons
The sociopolitical implications of dragons are fascinating to be sure, but you know what else I like to nerd out over? All the ways people make use of dragon labor. First, we have military applications. Every European power has its own dragon corps, as do many nations outside Europe. These dragons add airpower to the Napoleonic battlefield, changing the face of war forever.
The most basic use of dragons is to swoop down on ground troops from above, carving great rents in the enemy line with claws and teeth. But the military minds of Novik’s world are a lot more creative than that. Most dragons are large enough to carry a human crew attached with a complex set of rigging and lines. These aviators can drop bombs on the enemy, or just take potshots with muskets. Meanwhile, dragons with special abilities like acid spit or fire breath are highly sought after.
And of course, dragons are also used to establish air superiority. Sometimes this is decided by dragon-on-dragon battles, but just as often it comes down to boarding, with one crew leaping over to an enemy beast and capturing it. This makes for some exciting battle sequences indeed.
While the series focuses a lot on battles and warfare, Novik also shows us plenty of other uses for dragons. Smaller beasts are used as couriers, making communication far more reliable than in actual history. Others are used to carry cargo for overland trade routes, increasing prosperity and cultural exchange. In some countries, dragons even do as they see fit, living free lives like any human.
Once you introduce a new military technology, it won’t be long before someone creates a way to counter it. This happens over and over again in real life, no matter how advanced the technology in question. Planes had barely taken to the sky before military engineers figured out how to shoot them down, and even the most heavily armored tank is vulnerable to the right weapons.
Novik shows us the same process, only with dragons. As powerful as the beasts are, armies have ways to counter them, and not just with other dragons. Armed with an understanding of Napoleonic artillery, Novik made sure that most of her dragons can’t actually fly super high up, leaving them vulnerable to cannon and rocket fire.
Sometimes these are just normal artillery pieces modified to fire at a higher angle, but Novik’s armies also have specialized “pepper guns” that fire canisters of exploding pepper. This doesn’t usually kill dragons, but it irritates their eyes to the point that most can be incapacitated even by a near miss.
These countermeasures mean that while dragons are powerful, they can’t just run roughshod over the battlefield. Generals have to consider how to deploy their dragons so they can get the best result and take the fewest losses. This is similar to how modern militaries employ airpower. Fighters and bombers pack a punch, but they can be easily shot down if sent against the wrong targets.
Static worlds are a major problem in fantasy, in which it’s common for thousands of years to pass without a single advancement or innovation. Fortunately, the Temeraire series breaks that mold. Just like in real life, Novik’s Napoleonic Wars are the site of many new tactics and strategies that change how battles are fought.
A number of these advances come from Napoleon himself. At the start of the war, dragons are considered primarily an exploitation weapon, something to wreak havoc on the enemy once infantry or cavalry have created an opening. But the French emperor, military genius that he is, sees other uses for them.
First, he attempts an aerial invasion of Britain by using dragons to carry great troop transports across the channel. This is only stopped at the last moment by intervention from the main characters. Later on, Napoleon devises a plan to use dragons as rapid transport and deployment vehicles. He sets up draconic relays to move his ground forces around, greatly increasing his army’s speed while also negating the effects of difficult terrain.
These are tactics that the real world wouldn’t see until WWII, but they’re perfectly believable in context. The historical Napoleon was a brilliant innovator as well, and this seems like just the sort of thing he’d do with dragons at his disposal. Watching battle tactics evolve like this makes Novik’s world feel alive, especially when other countries start copying Napoleon’s tactics, just like they did in real life too.
Sadly, not everything about Novik’s worldbuilding is great. Introducing something as monumental as sapient dragons to the real world is bound to cause a few problems, and it’s time to talk about those.
In the previous section, I praised Novik’s setting for being dynamic and alive, fully accounting for how the presence of dragons would impact the world. That’s all still true, but it only seems to apply after the story starts. Before that, world history unfolded almost exactly as it did in real life, except there were also dragons in the background.
Other than a few exceptions like the Inca Empire’s avoiding destruction, everything is exactly the same. We have the same countries, the same wars, even the same historical people. Somehow the presence of dragons had so little effect on human behavior that we still had exactly the right circumstances necessary to produce Napoleon Bonaparte and Horatio Nelson.
Some of that can be explained through handwaving. Sure, it’s unlikely Napoleon would have exactly the same life experiences to become emperor of France, or even be born at all, but the whole point of this story is to do the Napoleonic Wars with dragons!
Unfortunately, some of the world’s strengths come back to bite it here. The story focuses so much on how dragons affect military tactics that it’s hard to believe anyone would still build large fortifications, since they could easily be destroyed by dragons dropping rocks. And yet the plot has several critical points that are solved by dragons dropping rocks on large fortifications.
Novik’s dragons are, for the most part, quite immersive. We have to suspend our disbelief over how such massive creatures can fly, but most fantasy readers are used to that. From there, the many different breeds of dragons and their fascinating characteristics are an excellent source of novelty.
The main problem is how dragons imprint on the first human who gives them food after hatching. They instantly become entirely devoted to and very possessive of that human. They don’t seem to do this with other dragons, which makes it hard to believe this is a trait they’d naturally have. It’s always possible the trait was selectively bred for, but in that scenario it seems unlikely that every dragon would have it at the same level.
Instead, this trait feels like the contrived plot device that it is. It’s used to make sure that our heroes Lawrence and Temeraire are instantly bonded from the moment Temeraire hatches, without the work you’d normally need to establish that kind of relationship. It’s also used to explain how dragons can speak English, since they apparently imprint whatever languages are spoken around their egg as they’re growing inside.
Perhaps worst of all, the imprinting feels like a justification to ignore how the dragons are treated as property in the first few books. Early on, the story is much more focused on upper-crust English manners than it is on draconic marginalization. Seeing that the dragons are enslaved by humans would ruin that mood, so the imprinting is used to make dragons love their humans so much that they don’t mind not being treated like people.
Another issue with Novik’s dragons is that it’s not at all clear how big they are. Sometimes they’re enormous. Temeraire himself is described as being the size of a frigate, which would put him at over 100 feet long. This makes some sense, as the largest dragons supposedly have crews of over 30 and can carry many more if they have to.
However, there are also numerous points in the story where massive dragons like Temeraire seem to accompany their humans into buildings and other small areas. Even with enlarged doors, no human-sized structure could ever accommodate a creature of Temeraire’s size.
In most cases, Novik is nebulous on exactly how large dragons are. This is usually a good tactic, as throwing a bunch of numbers at the reader doesn’t actually increase immersion. But in this case, the books seem to want it both ways. Temeraire is huge and imposing but also small enough that he can follow Lawrence almost anywhere without problems.
This final issue isn’t with the dragons themselves, but with the transport ships that carry them. Conceptually, this makes sense. Most dragons can’t cross large oceans on their own, so the great powers build Napoleonic-era aircraft carriers to increase the dragons’ range. Unfortunately, the way these ships supposedly work is ridiculous.
First, their size: these ships are described as being twice the length of first-rate ships of the line like HMS Victory. But Victory was already pushing the limits of ship technology when it was built. You can’t just keep adding more wood to make a ship bigger, or you’ll run into serious structural problems. Ships can literally come apart under the stress of their own size. This isn’t even considering the problem of trying to sail such large vessels.
Second, even at that massive size, these vessels aren’t nearly big enough to carry dragons like Temeraire. Again, exact numbers are hard to come by, but Temeraire appears to be about a fourth the length of the ship that carries him. Even if he’s light for his size, imagine an aircraft carrier with a plane taking up a fourth of its deck space. And these ships are meant to carry multiple dragons, some of whom are even larger than Temeraire!
Finally, there’s the fact that these dragon transports are also meant to be powerful battleships. In real life, arming aircraft carriers with anything but defensive weapons is always a bad idea. In a carrier, every bit of available space should be dedicated to more aircraft, and the same is probably true of dragon transports. Where do they keep the extra food and water for dragons if they use up so much space with cannons?
Plus, if ships this large can work as battleships, why aren’t some of them built specifically for battle, without all the space dedicated to carrying dragons? Such ships would make short work of any navy they came across.
What We Can Learn
We’ve seen the good and we’ve seen the bad, but what is most important for aspiring worldbuilders to take away from Temeraire? Even if you’re not working on a story of dragons in the Napoleonic Wars, there are still plenty of lessons to be found here.
The Past Is a Novel Country
Novelty is a big hook for all speculative fiction, and Novik does a fantastic job of it. The dragons are novel, of course, but so is the story’s time period. The social rules, fashion, and even dining choices of the early 1800s are all delightfully different from what most modern readers experience. Most of the cultural novelty comes from England, but we also visit a number of other countries throughout the series, each of them making its own contribution. I have no way of knowing how accurate Novik’s portrayal of this time period is; I only know it’s enjoyable.
Even better, Novik employs all this cultural novelty without damaging her characters’ likability. All too often, historical authors have their characters act like jerks, then justify it by claiming that’s just what people were like back then. Not only is this usually incorrect – there have always been people who were more or less bigoted than their cultural average – but it’s completely beside the point. If a character is unlikable to modern readers, it doesn’t matter what a hypothetical reader from the past would think.
Novik could have made her protagonist Lawrence a raging misogynist, racist, or any other “ist,” but she didn’t. She knew we needed to like this character if we were going to read a whole series about him. That doesn’t mean he has no flaws, but they’re relatable flaws that never go too far.
Globe-Trotting Fiction Takes Effort
Here at Mythcreants, we talk a lot about the dangers of cultural appropriation and how difficult it is to portray a culture you aren’t part of. We even recommend that most writers go for diversity through marginalized characters rather than marginalized cultures, as the risk of harm is much lower.
However, Novik clearly portrays a number of cultures she isn’t part of, from Indigenous Australia to the Inca to several native peoples of South Africa. Her books are well received on the diversity front,* as far as I can tell, so it’s worth looking at Novik’s methods here.
First, it helps a lot that this is a world where non-Europeans are much more successful at resisting colonization than in real life. It doesn’t feel like Novik is trying to profit off the pain and suffering of colonized people, since she portrays a world where those people are still free to shape their own lives.
Second, most of Temeraire’s portrayal of other cultures focuses on how those cultures handle dragons. Since dragons are entirely fictional, this lowers the risk of making a mistake when describing something sensitive. Novik doesn’t try to show indigenous religious practices – she’s too busy showing how indigenous people use dragons to kick ass and take names.
Finally, Novik makes sure that the non-European cultures in her story have agency. They are active players on the world stage, and while the books primarily revolve around a war in Europe, decisions made in Cusco and Peking have significant consequences.
On the other hand, Novik also employs a few setting elements that I recommend avoiding. Namely, we meet a South African people who believe that dragons are the reincarnations of their ancestors, when we know with certainty this is not the case. We also see that in the Inca Empire, dragons seem to own humans as property. Both of these portrayals risk making their respective groups seem less intelligent or capable than the European protagonists, and that’s something to avoid.
Don’t Undermine Your Message
Other than defeating Napoleon, Temeraire’s main throughline is the fight for dragon rights. This is a fine concept to base a story around, and for the most part, it works well. Unfortunately, the excellent message is undermined by certain aspects of the dragons themselves.
The imprinting issue is definitely the worst offender, as it edges dangerously close to the idea that dragons like being enslaved. You might remember this as one of the many problems with Harry Potter’s house elves. Beyond the imprinting, Novik occasionally shows us that certain breeds of dragons are incapable of acting rationally. For example, if two Regal Coppers are ever brought together other than for mating, they’ll stop whatever they’re doing and fight for dominance.
The dragons are also often portrayed as childlike and immature. Fortunately, this isn’t universal, and unlike the Regal Coppers, it can be chalked up to some dragons being less experienced than others. Even so, when you’re writing a story of resisting oppression, it’s usually a bad idea to depict your marginalized group as being unable to make good decisions for themselves. This can inadvertently support the idea that marginalized folks need privileged people to order them around “for their own good.”
Even the best worldbuilders can get tripped up by their setting’s history. Authors rightly focus on the time their stories take place, not wanting to overwhelm their readers with backstory, but this can mean missing critical aspects of what happened before the plot started.
In the case of Temeraire, there’s a contradiction in wanting a world that has always had dragons while also wanting a world that’s identical to history but with dragons added. It really needs to be one or the other. If dragons have really been around all this time, they’d have changed history so much that we probably wouldn’t even recognize it.
For anyone writing a similar story, the best option is usually to make your speculative element a recent arrival in the setting, whether you’re using dragons or something else entirely. That way, you can present the time period largely as it was, then show any changes in real time.
Alternatively, you can always use a fantasy world with similar aesthetics to the historical period in question. In that scenario, it’s easier to explain how your supernatural elements shaped the world into what you need it to be. Your research burden is also lower. You still need to understand the period you’re borrowing from, but there’s less pressure to conform to specific events.
Even with its flaws, the world of Temeraire is a breath of fresh air for those of us who mostly read high fantasy. The complex politics and strong social justice themes make for a compelling story, even if they are sometimes rough around the edges. It’s clear that Novik worked hard to create a living world for her draconic children to play in, and the books benefit from her effort.
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