Dragons might be seen as vicious beasts, but in author Naomi Novik’s world they’re intelligent creatures used to fight Napoleon. Naomi Novik is the creator behind the Temeraire series, an alternate history world where dragons fight in the Napoleonic Wars. Novik combines fantastical elements with historic research for an adventure that spans nine books. While Novik is brilliant at historical fantasies, her hand is even more skilled when she allows herself to slip into a world of fairytales, deception, and magic with her brand new book Uprooted. Whitney Grace takes great pleasure in visiting Novik’s worlds and asked the author some questions to clarify some details.
Naomi Novik (NN): An immediate inspiration was absolutely Patrick O’Brian. I’d seen the movie Master and Commander based off his book and I actually walked out of the theater, thinking that was all right. I was curious about the books, so I picked up the first one and over the next two weeks I read all twenty-one of them and saw the movie two more times. I fell in love all over again with the Age of Sail. It added an element to me of swashbuckling adventure. I’m a fan of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, the Regency era as well.
I’m also been a huge fan of fantasy. I think you can really see my roots in the Pern books, I’m a were a huge fan of Ursula Le Guin’s dragons as well, and Tolkien’s Smaug. All of those went into the big melting pot that caused the books.
WG: Why did you decide to make Temeraire an Asian dragon rather than a European one?
NN: I definitely felt that I didn’t want to write a book confined to Europe. If I had kept European society, particularly British society, the same then that I meant I had to constrain the life of dragons and aviators within that society. Otherwise it would be a fantasy universe and not the recognizable Napoleonic Wars. As soon as I had that idea, I knew I wanted to start with a naval captain protagonist, because that lets me introduce the reader to the fantastical element of the dragons naturally from the perspective of a person from that era and who was also discovering a lot about them for the first time.
I also love Chinese dragon legends. They have legends about dragons that portray them as much more helpful and extremely dangerous in many ways as well. Frequently, they’re more benevolent and certainly not mindless beasts. Sort of thinking about that made me want to make Temeraire Chinese and the concept that China was an air power, where Britain was a naval power, and France was a land power for this age. What that did to the Napoleonic Wars is quite interesting and fun to explore.
WG: I’m sensing a dragon’s freedom rights movements might happen in your book, like the Civil Rights Movement. Why is it that some cultures dragons are considered beasts of burden like in Europe, while in China they are citizens except larger and they fly?
NN: I wanted to explore all the different kinds of relationships you could see. Very frequently in fantasy and sci-fi books you get something like the desert planet. Our planet has enormous deserts on it, but that doesn’t stop there from being a variety of climates and cultures within one world. I didn’t want dragons and humans to act the same in one world, it invisibly enshrines something as the one true way. It’s never the case with you’re dealing with biological creatures and intelligent creatures much less so. There is absolutely no reason why dragons and humans would have the same relationship as they would in Europe or China. I specifically chose Europe to have dragons isolated and penned away, because that allowed me to keep Europe historically the same as possible and to introduce the reader through the eyes of the protagonist who wasn’t used to working with dragons on a daily basis. The various other cultures we’ve seen China, Africa, Southern Africa the Tswana with an empire that’s built on a relationship between humans and dragons. We’ve seen the Inca, where the dragons have established the primacy and it’s almost the inverse relationship to what we see in Europe.
Essentially exploring what that does to each culture and how the different cultures meet is fun.
WG: I’m really excited to learn about what will happen with North America in your future books. You have Tecumseh as president and that’s cool. I’m taking the Native American tribes of North America are the dominant people.
NN: My idea for what happened in North America, it was previously touched upon in an earlier book when a dragon prisoner was brought over from North America, is that the Iroquois and other nations had a single dragon to human relationship that was part of their foundation. Through that relationship, the dragons were part of the tribe and considered themselves responsible for the humans. I didn’t want to erase the history of colonization and there are things dragons can’t influence like disease. Obviously epidemics killed enormous, some estimates are 90% of the populations of the Americas. My idea is that what happened, and I haven’t had time yet to sit down and research this, but the dragons, like in Peru, had lost many of their humans and both sides used the traditions of adoption in certain Native American tribes.
The colonists were willingly merged with the Native American tribes that were there. The government is essentially a confederation of tribes. The colonists’ advantages in guns wasn’t able to overcome the natives’ advantage with dragons and air power.
WG: What I like is that the dragons in America have the same rights as dragons in Asia.
NN: To a degree, of course there is a lot of influence of the Native American culture with that respect and the fact the dragons are much more useful when you have a smaller labor force.
WG: Will you get to the Cherokee, one of the largest tribes?
NN: Alas, not in the Temeraire series, because book nine is going to finish the Napoleonic Wars. I’m not going to get to North America or India, both which make me sad.
WG: Me too. What about Antarctica?
NN: Antarctica is a little bit of a sideshow. I don’t believe there are dragons living there, I might be wrong. I haven’t written it yet.
WG: Dragons have popped up a lot in popular media, How to Train Your Dragon, Eragon a few years ago. Has your work been compared to any of those?
NN: I think there is always a comparison, when people think about dragons and how they are relative to one another. I’m a huge dragon fan, I’m a relatively easy sell. I would have said Game of Thrones is a huge dragon fandom now. Daenerys is my favorite.
WG: Do you think the term “dragonrider” can be trademarked or it can be used by anyone?
NN: If anybody could have trademarked it, it would have been Anne McCaffrey. It certainly can’t be done now. I think Anne McCaffrey clearly took that term and made it mean something in the Pern universe. In the Temeraire universe, dragon rider would be the Native Americans in a similar sense. But the British aviators see themselves in such a way and are trying to maintain that kind of distancing and objectification of dragons, which is part of western society.
WG: What type of dragon from your books would you want as your companion?
NN: Temeraire is really my favorite, if I had to pick one. I love Persidia, the geek dragon.
WG: I love Persidia and how clever she is. What are your plans for her?
NN: Persidia is in England still and that’s all I’m going to say without spoiling anything.
WG: How do you plan to have the Dragons’ rights movement proceed?
NN: I see this is as the very beginning of a process that is going to take generations before it is completed. There can be immediate and sometimes large improvements in the lives of individuals and in a significant portion of a population, but I don’t think you can overcome the vast tidal forces in a single act. Temeraire isn’t going to win, he may win some battles, but it’s not going to be done in a way. It’s more of the awakening of an idea with the dragons in the west and how the pressures of the Napoleonic War support them in similar ways that labor shortages in WWII have been the catalyst for various changes in society.
WG: How do dragons view family relationships within their own species?
NN: Dragons view family as interesting. Temeraire is quite interested to meet his mother and by then he absorbed some of the ideas of Chinese concept of good breeding in dragons. His self-concept is then tied up in finding more about his family line. My general feelings is that dragons hatch able to take care of themselves. All dragon nurturing is towards the egg. An egg is very vulnerable and needs to be protected. It’s one of the few times in a dragon’s existence they are vulnerable to another predator. I think that dragons are extremely anxious and protective of eggs, but once the dragon hatches they’re like “all right. See ya.” It’s their innate instinctive thing. It’s taken for granted how we feel nurturing towards our children and how we feel responsible and protective to them. It’s a very biological function and that came out in Temeraire when he feels responsible for the lost eggs in Tongues of Serpents and how he instinctively feels horrible about it. As soon as he finds the dragon and sees the egg is hatched, he’s like oh and has a sigh of relief.
WG: There are some legendary characteristics associated with dragons like hoarding and a love for gold. How did you work that into your writing?
NN: I like trying to find elements of dragon legends and myths and then bring them into the books that feel organic to me and biologically believable. I like to say if the reader will give me the dragons, I’ll try to make the rest feel consistent. I like the idea that dragons instinctively like beautiful things and treasures and want to collect them. In my head that proves how dragons want status in the way people want status. Each dragon has his or her own way of viewing treasure.
WG: I like Iskierka’s view. Poor Gramby! Do you just come up with new ways to torture that character?
NN: Yes, I know.
WG: Do you have anything to declare?
NN: My new book Uprooted is inspired by Polish fairy tales that my mother used to read to me as a child. It’s set in a magical, fantastical universe where the settings is influenced by Renaissance Poland. It’s set in the South of Poland, but not the exact south. I didn’t make Uprooted as historically accurate as the Temeraire books. It’s more influenced by fairy tales and I wanted that type of atmosphere. Another inspiration was that I wanted to write about a dragon that’s completely different. It’s immediate inspiration is called Agniezka, Piece of the Sky.