[Also known as 'The King's Dragon'.] This has a very simple premise: imagine the Napoleonic wars, but with dragons. It sounds mad, but actually it works astonishingly well. The author manages to capture the ethos of the times perfectly - the class system, the rigid formality of manners, the somewhat florid language - while still creating a fascinating work of fantasy.
The starting point is the acquisition of a dragon egg from a captured French frigate, which inconveniently decides to hatch while the British ship is still returning to port. Not wanting to allow such a prize to go to waste, the crew, or rather the officers (that's the class system at work again), decide to see if the dragon will accept a harness. As it happens, it is the Captain, Will Laurence, who manages it and has to leave the Navy and join the dragon corps as a result. His regrets about this, which he regards as being cast out from good society, and how he comes to terms with his situation, form a good part of the book. It is interesting that he is now regarded as a pariah both by his own sector of society, including his family, and also by the Aerial Corps personnel, who see him as coming from outside their close-knit and unorthodox culture, completely untrained, and resent him walking off with a prize dragon when they have (in their own eyes) far more suitable and highly trained people.
There is a certain amount of action, since the dragons are all trained for aerial combat as part of the war effort against the French, but the focus is very much on the characters - both the humans who live with the dragons, and of course the dragons themselves, who are very much characters in their own right. Laurence's dragon, the Temeraire of the title, is in fact by far the most interesting character here, being highly intelligent and curious and somewhat radical in his politics, which puts Laurence rather on the defensive, forced to justify the customs he himself takes for granted. Laurence spends quite a lot of his free time reading to Temeraire, including scientific works which Laurence himself doesn't pretend to understand, but the dragon does. It must be a bit like having a very precocious child, I suppose. The relationship is a close one, and there are some wonderful moments between man and dragon. To be honest, Laurence himself struck me as a difficult person to like in many ways, since he has very rigid ideas of propriety - a very prickly man - but his affection for Temeraire is charming.
The dragons are quite carefully thought out. There are various wild species which have been bred and cross-bred for aerial combat purposes for centuries, and different nationalities have bred their own varieties with different characteristics. Only some can breathe fire, for instance, and none of the British ones can, but they have a variety which can spit acid, for instance. Unlike the Pern variety, these dragons aren't telepathic and they talk quite normally, but there is a very strong bond between dragon and handler, even if the handler mistreats his dragon (I found poor Levitas very distressing to read about). Nice, too, that there are female dragon handlers, although true to the times, this is by the choice of the dragons, not a blow for feminism. Laurence was quite shocked by the idea (but then Laurence is easily shocked, it has to be said). I also liked the idea that, since dragon handlers have much shorter lifespans than dragons, handlers try to arrange for a son (or daughter) to take over when they die, and there is a certain amount of pragmatic breeding of humans for the purpose - the author has obviously put a lot of thought into details like this.
The plot develops quite nicely, although it really isn't particularly important. The objective is to describe the society of two hundred years ago as it would have been if there were dragons in the world then, and this the author does brilliantly. One could argue that access to dragons over many previous centuries would have changed history far more than is evident here - would there even be a Napoleon and a Nelson, for instance? But that hardly matters.
The writing style is perfectly in keeping with the period, and so is the behaviour of the characters. It might seem a bit slow, and not everyone would enjoy the formal language used, but I loved it. I liked the whole idea of the Aerial Corps, with its slightly informal air, and the way the larger dragons go into battle loaded with gunners and bombers and whole teams of crew, rather like a ship of the air. This makes the battles quite unusual, with attempts to board enemy dragons and hand to hand combat (with swords and pistols!) while strapped on to a dragon conducting his or her own form of combat. This is one of those rare books where I actually didn't want it to end. Luckily there are nine books in the series to date, so those who want can indulge their enjoyment of Temeraire for quite some time. Five stars.