Like the book says, “Guns, Germs, and Steel” were the three major factors that allowed in European colonization. In the Americas, European diseases decimated the local populations, and anyone who survived had only wood and stone weapons with which to fight the initial waves of conquest. In Africa, superior technology allowed Europeans to conquer the continent. And in East Asia, European weapons technology pulled ahead of Chinese tech enough for China to be defeated and humiliated in the Opium Wars.
Then Naomi Novik asked “what if everyone had dragons?” Dragons are not a purely technological innovation, they are a natural one. They grow, they aren’t built. They are bred, yes, but they can never be bred into the sort of dead end that technology can reach.
In Novik’s China, this means that the technological head start the Chinese had in the middle ages never went away. They learned how to breed dragons better than Europeans, and they kept it up.
In Africa and the Americas, this means that the native populations couldn’t be easily dominated and subdued. Sure, plague still swept through native Americans, but it was not solely responsible for the conquest of the Americas. However, when the colonizers come on boats without dragons, and the local populations have fully integrated dragons into their cultures, the European guns and steel are useless.
It’s hard for me to describe, as a history buff and a person invested in social justice, just how awesome this is. There’s an African empire that has no interest in getting the English to abolish the slave trade, because they’re going to end it themselves by burning all the goddamn ports to the ground with effin’ dragons. There’s a sequence in which the characters journey up the coast of Africa and find that every single slave port has been destroyed in a coordinated attack.
There’s a recounting of a famous incident in which the emperor of the Inca was murdered, after being ransomed, by Europeans. In real history, the Incans attacked the Europeans, and it was a bloodbath as the Europeans shot thousands of Incans and emerged without a scratch. But add dragons on the Inca side, and suddenly the Incan bloodbath becomes dismembered Europeans.
In North America, it’s pretty ruddy hard for the early Americans to ignore and trample over the native tribes when those tribes are breeding dragons–so the colonists and the native peoples unite in their desire for independence, and produce a new fusion of a distinctly American culture.
In fact, over the course of the series, Europe is slowly revealed to be quite backward in its idea of dragons, and Europeans’ failure to integrate dragons into their society has put them at a huge disadvantage compared to the rest of the world. The Regency era was, in real history, a time when England felt itself to be the master of the world. Not so here, because they’ve kept dragons walled off from their society. They’ve lost access to a huge amount of knowledge and skill. They’ve downgraded thinking beings into animals, and they’ve suffered for it.
It’s a pretty awesome way of turning history on its head.