Was talking about Novik and Temeraire last weekend with nojojojo and paleaswater. Shall continue to do it here.
I like the series but I find a certain lack, a monotarinai/ 物足りない unsatisfactoriness, to it. I like the Japanese word because it literally means 'not enough stuff.' I don't know what's missing from the books exactly, but something is. It's too smooth, too easy; it needs depth or weight or something.
Now, whatever's lacking in Temeraire is present for sure in one of Temeraire's begetters, O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series. O'Brian has weight and solidity to spare, and I think that what provides it is all the ship-stuff and the minutiae of sailing. This is odd. One reads Aubrey-Maturin for personalities and relationships and a little for the plot; and all the talk of ropes and readings and navigation and steering and various kinds of winds and waves are immaterial to the first and really only incidental to the second. Is there a storm that sends us off-course? O'Brian could just say that a storm blew up and lasted three days and at the end we're miles away from Tahiti. Instead he tells you what kind of storm it was and what it looked like when it came up and from which direction, and which masts broke when and how they were jury-rigged, or not, and what happened to the water barrels and were there enough hands for the pumps. It's fun reading, which is a good thing because there's so much of it. Even when it's incomprehensible to me, O'Brian knows exactly what he's talking about, so I can be carried along on the flow. (There's a laughable theory current that Stephen is put on board to ask all the landlubber's questions we want to ask ourselves and so acquire information without being dumped on. It's laughable because the explanations Stephen's given are of a midnight obscurity and tell you nothing at all. To be fair, I'm not sure O'Brian was aware of this himself. It takes a certain gift to understand not only what it is the amateur doesn't know, but why she can't make the obvious connections for herself.)
The trouble with Novik's world is that there isn't the same vast body of knowledge about dragons as there is about ships. She could have made it up; some writers would have, Tolkien-and-his-languages fashion, and displayed it to us at length, Herbert and his water conservation fashion. I suppose I should be grateful she didn't, except I think dragon rearing and steering and fighting would be fascinating.
So what she's giving us is Aubrey and Maturin without the background. Doubtless if O'Brian had done that I'd find it almost as unsatisfying. If I think about it, the two things I definitely find irksome in Novik-- battles I can't follow and faceless English surnames that tend to die in passing-- are there in O'Brian too, but I notice them less because of all the sail talk.
But even in the main relationship-- both Jack and Stephen (especially Stephen) at their first appearance have considerable personal history that only comes out in bits and pieces later. Laurence does too, but we don't get much of it; and Temeraire of course begins with the book that bears his name. Equally, Jack is a man of passion and Stephen a man of secrets, and both those qualities affect the plot and their relationship. But Laurence begins, certainly, as emotionally cool not to say cold, a proper and correct bland young man with no discernible strong feelings, or none that trouble him for more than a few pages; while Temeraire is of an innate sweetness delightful to behold and read, but not one that will deepen the atmosphere of the work. The conflicts in the Aubrey-Maturin relationship are more internal than external; the Laurence-Temeraire ones are all external, and IMHO only beginning to be truly involving and conflicting.
Othes have mentioned some of this before. The reason I couldn't find mikeneko's entry about how Temeraire reads like fanfic is because it was qwerty who said it. And I agree. there's an easiness, a tying up of stuff, that marks the mainstream popular novel as much as fanfiction. O'Brian doesn't tie stuff up. His books just end, like life, and one goes on to the next one, now, or waited for the next one, then. Me, I find that roughness reassuring.
So, I thought as I lay awake on Tuesday morning, listening to the occasional taxi and not much else, if one were writing Temeraire fanfic and wanted to evoke O'Brian's depth, the way to do it would be to use O'Brian's style to write Temeraire action. And probably the only person who could do it properly is bravecows afrai with her pitch-perfect ear for other people's style. Someone should suggest she do it; because I'd be terrified to try writing the thing myself.
And then I turned on my other side and began considering Susannah Clarke's fairies and whether they represent middle class Victorian fears and conceptions of the working class-- which is another story for another time.