- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 13, 2006

Naomi Novik’s debut novel, His Majesty’s Dragon (Del Rey, $7.50, 353 pages), is bound to raise echoes of Capt. Horatio Hornblower and Pern’s dragonriders in any experienced reader, but within a few pages she takes the elements of the Napoleonic Wars and dragon-human bonding and turns them into a book that is all her own.

Capt. Will Laurence of His Majesty’s Navy had no interest in taking to the air on a fighting dragon when his ship captures a French frigate carrying a dragon’s egg. Pern’s dragonriders might be honored, the stuff of legends, but Britain’s version are all but outcasts, isolated from the rest of society by the need to care for their hungry, rambunctious mounts.

Laurence has visions of a childhood friend becoming a sweet wife and a small, orderly home full of joy and children. (Obviously he has not spent much time around small children.) But the newly hatched dragon has other ideas, ignoring the poor soul selected to be his rider and heading straight for Laurence.

The dragon is a charmer, rather resembling a well-behaved, precocious child, who enjoys being read to and loves his bath. Laurence and Temeraire — named for a warship — plunge into the world of the Aerial Corps, undergoing flight training with their fellow human-dragon crews and eventually repulsing Napoleon’s attempt to land troops in Britain.

A second book is promised, and a preview has a Chinese envoy demanding the return of the dragon, which the emperor intended as a gift for Napoleon and which should not be under the control of a mere mortal such as Laurence. But Temeraire, despite his exalted bloodlines, has no intention of being parted from his person.

If “Dragon” is a straightforward tale, Jennifer Fallon’s Wolfblade (Tor, $25.95, 512 pages) is absolutely Byzantine, written around a family worthy of the Borgias. The tale starts simply enough with a 16-year-old princess, Marla Wolfblade, unhappy with the marriage planned to secure borders with a neighboring kingdom. And to be fair, her intended is a lout more suited to a pigpen than a palace. Is it surprising that she falls in love at first sight — or something resembling it — at her very first ball? And to Nashan Hawksword, someone entirely unsuitable?

Lest this sound like “Cinderella,” do be advised that what follows is more like Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” Marla is sent off to the slave market to find someone to teach her the arts of the marital bed — there is a class of slaves specially trained in such matters. But instead of a handsome young thing, Marla comes back with stunted, twisted Elezaar, who has whispered promises not of marital bliss but of power, something Marla, for all her family connections, has not at all.

What follows is an entertaining, if blood-chilling, account of love, hate, treachery, double-dealing and the random murder (or several). Those 512 pages race by with nary a falter, leaving the reader eager for the next installment of the Wolfblade saga.

Magic is either nonexistent or in short supply in the previous offerings, but David Keck’s debut, In the Eye of Heaven (Tor, $25.95, 412 pages), has more than enough to make up the deficit. The book starts out as the tale of a squire training to become a knight and take over the lands of a widower who has lost his only son.

Durand has his life turned upside down on the eve of his knighting when the son reappears after years of wandering and reclaims his rightful place — leaving no room for Durand.

A chance encounter with the men of Lord Radomor secures Durand a place in the world, albeit lowly. And the duty of serving a half-maddened man sends Durand fleeing into the service of disgraced Lamoric, the Red Knight, who has cooked up a half-baked scheme to get back into his family’s good graces. Lamoric is following the tournaments in an attempt to heal his sorry finances and sorrier reputation.

The setting, thus, is an accurate, unromantic look at life under the feudal system that prevailed over much of the world for much of recorded history, where the holding of land was the only sure way of survival, or at least as sure as anything can be in such an arbitrary system.

As these mundane events take place, the magic of myths and legends coils and uncoils through the plot, feeding on betrayal and threatening the very existence of reality. Mr. Keck is an assured writer with a thorough grasp of a plot based soundly on recorded history and heirloom legend.

“In the Eye of Heaven” is an engrossing read.

What would you get if you crossed Spenser with Merlin (besides a couple of very cross men)? Probably you would come up with someone very like Harry Dresden, wizard, tough guy and star of Jim Butcher’s latest, Proven Guilty (Roc, $23.95, 404 pages).

The book opens with Dresden, in his role of warden, attending the execution of a young man who has dabbled in the arts without benefit of a mentor and turned into a warlock. There is very little left that is human, but Dresden mourns that loss. It is not long before he realizes that the daughter of his best friends is in danger of going the same route, and Harry is ready to sell his own life to keep her safe.

Just as Spenser has his Hawk, Harry has a talking skull named Bob to provide the same role of sarcastic relief and guardian of the wizard’s frequently vulnerable back.

Suprisingly, for the fantasy genre, Mr. Butcher explores the role of faith in traditional Christianity with love and respect. Dresden has very little faith in anything, but the faith of those who love him sometimes acts as a cloak, even if he is sharing his mind with a demon.

(I have a sneaking suspicion that anyone who was a fan of TV’s “Buffy” will really like this series.)

Judith Kreiner is a copy editor at The Washington Times who lost an ancestor to the Inquisition for witchcraft.

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