His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Wow, this was a find. As I was getting sick of reading Nebula-winning novels, I decided to search my local library's eBook collection for some likely prospects. They let you search on Hugo-nominated (but not Nebula-nominated, only Nebula-winning...weird) books, and that turned up this promising-looking book. I've seen it listed in shorthand as the Napoleonic Wars with dragons. That's pretty accurate, although I feel more like it's a dragon book where the author uses early 19th century Britain as the setting.
This sort of very alternate history is not unique, but it's carried off very well here. The characters are believable, the dialogue is crisp, and the plot moves along fairly well. I was interested to see how much the author changed the historical events. She avoids the extremes of "everything's different because there are dragons" and "I'm telling a history, just with dragons added". Let's just say that the Battle of Trafalgar still plays a role, but it's not the only pivotal event in the book.
Some reviewers have focused on the style of aerial combat in the books -- dragons typically have entire crews rather than lone riders -- as what makes the books so wonderful. It's a neat idea, but not enough to carry the book. I think the ideas about relationships between dragons and humans are much more important, because they underlie both the combat and the non-combat portions of the book. Also, the decision to make the human protagonist a slightly older person helps, because we're spared the "young boy goes off to magic school" plot that we're all pretty sick of by now.
I was looking forward to recommending this book to my friends, only to discover I'm somewhat late to the party -- several of them have already read it. If you're looking for some new fantasy to dig into, I think this is a top choice.
As of writing this review, I have actually read the second book in the series, and read about the third through the seventh books. I'm not as excited about the whole series now as I was after finishing the first book. I was happy to hear that the seventh book is coming out soon. I am used to discovering a series three books in, then waiting three years for the fourth book and five for the fifth. (I'm looking at you, George R.R. Martin.) I'll continue to read the books as long as I enjoy them, whether that's too the end (the ninth planned book) or not.