So good in fact that when I started reading the first book around 11pm, I'd only planned on reading a few chapters or so. Yet before I know it, it's after 4am and I've just devoured the second book. (Granted, that has thrown me off for sleep this whole week, but I really feel it was worth it. My coworkers however don't agree, something about me being cranky.)
Novik has taken the Napoleonic Wars and added dragons to them. Yes, dragons. Dragons that think and speak and serve in their countries Aerial Corps (think Air Force. Every country has their own breeds, bred for abilities like speed, or shooting acid from their nostrils, which are highly guarded. And that is where the trouble starts. Captain Will Laurence and his crew capture a French ship, which was given the dubious task of transporting an egg to the French Emperor. Pleased with their success, they crew is quick to dismay when they figure out that the egg is about to hatch, and they are days from land. When that happens, they are surprised, as Temeraire ends up being a black (Chinese) dragon, the likes of which no one in Europe has ever seen. (The Chinese are somewhat fanatical about their dragons, which plays out in book 2.) Laurence is chosen by Temeraire as his 'companion'; so he's forced to resign his commission in the Navy and join the less than illustrious Aerial Corps. (Personally, given a choice, I'd pick the Aerial Corps any day. I mean, hello, dragons vs scurvy, rats, and unwashed men. So easy.)
The story continues from there, with Laurence and Temeraire going to Scotland for aerial training and then quickly plunging into battle with the French Aerial Corps. (Novik does a really good job of describing the battles; I've read quite a few different reviews where people have commented on her attention to historical details.) Laurence and Temeraire also get closer, as he begins to see Temeraire as a friend and companion. (Which is the norm in the Aerial Corps; I really enjoyed reading the bits about the other members of their unit) There's also the discovery that women serve in the Aerial Corps as well, something thought to be unheard of. (See, there are a few breeds that are only willing to tolerate women companions, but this is kept a state secret as during those days, women were considered too fragile to do more than stay at home. Granted, we could cook, clean, sew, birth children, work on a farm, manage a store, and wear those damn corsets, but God forbid we dressed in man's pants and served in the armed forces.
The first book ends at a celebratory ball for the Aerial Corps (with the women in dresses that they complain about and the musicians playing for the dragons) after their amazing victory over the French's sneak attack, but with surprising news for both Laurence and Temeriare; not only is he a Chinese dragon, but he's the type of dragon that the Chinese will go to war over to get back.
That leads us to the second book, where members of the Imperial Chinese court have come to demand that Temeraire be returned to them. However, both Laurence and Temeraire disagree with this idea, Temeraire going so far as to 'kidnap' Laurence, so the British and the Chinese reach a compromise: Temeraire will go to China, but Laurence (and the crew) will accompany them. The plan, since the voyage is too long and dangerous to fly, is to take a dragon transport ship, captained by an old friend of Laurence's. The journey itself is a challenge, not only is there a sea serpent, a battle with the French, illness, but they have the Imperial Court trying to woo and sway Temeraire into wanting to stay in China, without Laurence. That's where the Chinese are most successful. In Europe, dragons are treated more as (intelligent) beasts of burden, but in China, they are revered and treated as royalty. Dragons read and write, shop, even walk in the cities, all things that are unheard of back in Europe (but try fitting a dragon in London). Temeraire starts to see how things could/should be and is understandably mad, while Laurence feels incredibly guilty, because these things aren't done and he feels they should.
There are so many things that go on during this novel, from Temeraire meeting his family, meeting a 'girl', several assassination attempts on Laurence's life, and meals that sound incredibly good. (Small tangent here, but Novik did an excellent job of describing the dishes and the types of food prepared, not just for Temeraire, but Laurence and co. I could almost taste the dishes, like I could see the battles in my head. Really, an excellent writing job.)
Novik has put up the first chapters of both books on her site, as well as other interesting bits to read. She also has a live journal, where she mentions that she's working on a forth books, with ideas to carry her thorough the sixth book.
I've heard people compare these books to works by Jane Austen/Patrick O'Brian/Anne McCaffrey and I have to say that I don't disagree. I adore Jane Austin as a writer; she's topped my favorite list for almost a decade, ever since I first got my hands on "Pride and Prejudice". Patrick O'Brian wrote a fantastic series, starting with "Master and Commander", and I spent an entire summer one year, going back and forth to the library to get more of Anne McCaffrey's novels; the Rowan series, and the Dragonriders series were particular favorites. I'm going to be keeping my eye out for more works by Novik; I can't wait to see what she comes up with after this.