His Majesty's Dragon
by Naomi Novik
Del Rey, 2006
This is the first book in Novik's Temeraire series, and also her first published book. It should be noted that while all of her books are well written and worth reading, her series vary significantly in setting and tone; if you were introduced to her writings by her recently popular A Deadly Education, you are perhaps more likely to enjoy her 'fairy tales', Uprooted and Spinning Silver.
His Majesty's Dragon follows a young naval captain, Will Laurence, who is fighting for England in the Napoleonic wars. The story starts as he accidentally captures a dragon egg off a French ship, and then accidentally allows the dragon to imprint on him. England is desperate for more dragons for its aerial corps, and he is of necessity released from his promising career in the Royal Navy to become an aviator.
This is a bit of a personal disaster for him, as aviators are not entirely respectable, and he will most likely have to break off relations with his almost-fiancee... and his father may vary well disown him. He will no longer be able to travel in the higher social circles, and, of course, he will have to start his military education over again from the beginning.
This misery is off-set by the adventure of learning more about dragons, and his dragon in particular. Temeraire, as he has named him, is an unusual dragon, apparently stolen or captured from the orient. He doesn't seem to be developing fire-breathing or poison-spitting capabilities, but at least he is growing very large very quickly, and has more maneuverability than most dragons. He is also surprisingly intelligent, quickly outstripping captain Laurence in languages and mathematics.
Temeraire matures quickly, and is just as quickly pushed into service; Napoleon's dragons are amassing across the channel, and enemy action is expected any day...
Overall, this is a fun and satisfying read. It is a bit slow moving, has very few fantasy elements (just dragons, really), and isn't especially satisfying as historical fiction. It is a good alternate history, but more importantly, it is a well written story. Despite having no clear hooks that I can point to, it was a book that I looked forward to picking up again every time I put it down, and one that left me ready to read the sequel.
The next book in the series is Throne of Jade.