Katherine Neville's bio reads almost like a best selling novel in it's own right. During the 1970's she was working in the computer field and did consulting work for the Algerian government and worked for the US Department of Energy's nuclear site in Idaho. She also worked as a model and portrait painter. In 1980 she moved to San Francisco and became a vice president of the Bank of America. Her debut novel and best selling one The Eight was published in 1988. She drew on her personal experiences for that and some of her other books. Calculated Risk clearly used information she had learned when working in the finance industry.
I don't think many people would regard her as a fantasy author. Calculated Risk isn't a fantasy on any level. The Magic Circle could be regarded as alternate history, because one of the characters is a major historical figure, but her view of him and his background aren't even remotely close to the truth. The less said about the sequel to The Eight, The Fire, the better. That's one of the worst books I have ever read, and tarnished The Eight somewhat for me.
It's really hard to find a good cover of The Eight now, and that one doesn't do it justice either, but it was the best one I could see. I'm not sure how The Eight is classified, but you can't find it under fantasy. I'm not really sure why, because a large part of it is about the secret behind eternal youth and to the best of my knowledge that's not a real thing.
It's hard to describe the book accurately, and at the same time give anyone a clue how wonderful it is without spoiling it. My best shot is: the French Revolution, Charlemagne, chess and the secret to eternal youth.
I haven't had a serious go at listing my 10 favourite books for some time. If I did it now, despite having been some years since I read it, I still think The Eight would make the cut.
Further and related reading: Katherine Neville herself wrote 3 other books. Calculated Risk disappointed a lot of people, I think that may have been because they expected something like The Eight, and it's nothing like that, it's largely a heist or caper novel set in and around the world of high finance. The Magic Circle sort of went here there and everywhere in history, like The Eight, but seemed to lack a point. I got to the end and honestly couldn't tell you what the focus was or what I'd even been reading with any surety. She went to the well again with The Fire, but that was a horrible mess of a book. The Eight seems to have been lightning in a bottle for Katherine Neville. I can't honestly recommend anyone else, because while chess features in more than a few fantasies, as does the French Revolution, Charlemagne and the secret to eternal youth, nothing else combined them in the same way The Eight does, it's kind of unique in that way. The closest I can come is the 3rd book in Jim Hines' Magic Ex Libris series; Unbound. That has Ponce de Leon as a major character. The main character also enjoys chess, but it's not a focus like it was in The Eight, where one of the major characters was a participant in high level chess tournaments.
Naomi Novik began her career as did more than a few fantasy authors as a game designer. She found that while working on Neverwinter Nights: Shadows of Undrentide, that she preferred writing her own fiction, rather than trying to create games based on someone else's vision.
Naomi Novik's idea was to concentrate on the Napoleonic Wars and add dragons. In that respect her Temeraire series is an alternate history. It's quite a clever idea, and it really was surprising that it hadn't been further mined before she got to it. The Temeraire books are often described as Patrick O'Brien with dragons, and that's a very apt description. The first one in the series: Temeraire: His Majesty's Dragon, is a pure delight from start to finish. Ultimately the series will have 9 books, and 8 have already been published. The final book is due out in 2016. Unfortunately I felt that they lost the spark of the first few in the series a few books ago and characters don't seem to have developed and have relied heavily on the audience's toleration of their quirks as entertaining rather than tedious. I also think the last two books have suffered heavily from a lack of ruthless editing.
Novik isn't a one trick pony, and has recently released Uprooted, a YA fantasy, which does feature dragons, but from the released preview excerpts seems to have more a fairy tale feeling to it, than Temeraire's stylised 19th century.
Having come from a background of game designing it's no surprise that Naomi Novik keeps a rather slick looking website at naominovik.com
Given what I said above, and Naomi Novik's bibliography thus far, it's no surprise that Temeraire gets the nod. When I first discovered the book it was simply called Temeraire. The extra bit of His Majesty's Dragon got added on for the US publication, and also applied when it became obvious that it was a series and the series itself was named Temeraire.
The idea is fairly simple, but it's executed so well that you can't help but be enchanted by it. A British naval captain captures a French ship that is carrying a dragon's egg. When the egg hatches the dragon immediately bonds with the captain and so becomes his dragon. This requires a virtual demotion for Captain Lawrence from the Navy to the Flying Corps, who are not well regarded by the rest of the British force. Both dragons and their pilots and crews use a rather faux Austenish way of speaking and observe the same behaviour. Because of the type of dragon he is, Temeraire proves invaluable in the battle against Napoleon's forces. Since that first adventure, Temeraire and Lawrence have journeyed to China, the Middle East, Africa, Australia and South America. The last published book found them in Russia.
Further and related reading: there are 9 books in the Temeraire series, the last book League of Dragons is due out in 2016. Over their length Novik has gone all over the world and tried to cover the period and the war from every possible angle, always featuring the change that the existence of dragons have wrought on it.
The master of alternate history Harry Turtledove wrote a series called Darkness which featured a magical war similar to WW II, in which creatures like dragons and sea serpents were used as weapons by the sides. The Bazil Broketail series by Christopher Rowley was about a sentient dragon who travelled with a boy who was his rider, but the dragon of the title was the one who ran the relationship. The closest to Temeraire in style and idea was Jo Walton's Tooth and Claw. This is a Jane Austen style novel, only featuring dragons, not people.
Next week, the O's and I even surprised myself in finding a contender there.