Title: A Natural History of Dragons (2013) (The Memoirs of Lady Trent, Book One)
Author: Marie Brennan
Read: 23rd – 26th August 2017
Genre: fantasy; historical fiction; adventure
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day. Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever. (Synopsis from publisher)
Simply put, A Natural History of Dragons is a delight – an ode to Victorian-era travel writing told by a confident and curious intellectual young lady who refuses to let the mere fact of her being a woman stop her from pursuing her desired naturalist research interests – dragons. Our protagonist, Isabella Trent, is a joy of a character; she narrates her earlier memoirs from a position of hindsight but her older (and wiser?) self doesn’t disparage her younger self’s ignorance, nor does she actively try to re-write her own history in order to make herself seem better. This, combined with her self-awareness of the societal expectations of women’s writing (confined to the margins of certain genres and/or the unacknowledged authors of men’s research) and interests in life, makes for a well-rounded and nuanced character. The strength in Brennan’s characterisation helps to make A Natural History of Dragons an oddly believable novel given that its primary narrative features a research expedition to find dragons!
“I believed myself to be ready then; now, with the hindsight brought by greater age, I see myself for the naive and inexperienced young woman I was. We all begin in such a manner, though. There is no quick route to experience.”
Set in an alternative Victorian land, the story’s world building is subtle, and mostly relegated to the edges of the narrative. It seems to be a rich and complex world, with the nuances of the worlds’ politics, religions, and social classes all featuring as very subtle plot points which enable, or limit, any given character’s journey. Although there aren’t any recognisable place names, I think, as a reader, you get the sense that Scirland is, broadly speaking, a Victorian-era Great Britain, with the gang’s expedition to Vystrana equivalent to a trip to Eastern Europe or perhaps Russia. Everything is almost, but not quite, familiar, thereby creating an alienating effect that is, nevertheless, less jarring than an altogether fantastical setting. By not entirely grounding her story in a known reality, Brennan conversely carves herself out a world in which her natural history, involving all manner of dragon species, could feasibly exist. However, the manners and etiquette rife in her characters’ interactions are much akin to a Regency or Victorian-era setting, so fans of Jane Austen will possibly appreciate some of the finer points of societal pressures against which Lady Trent fights. The narrative tone of the novel is very much in the Austen school of thought, and Isabella is certainly a strong, witty heroine that I believe would be appreciated by such women writers of days gone by.
“There are proverbs about frying pans and fires that I might have quoted to myself, but I preferred to adapt a different one to my purposes: better the devil that would attack everyone impartially than the devil specifically looking to kill us.”
To the other characters – there are a cast of characters, each distinct and adding a different perspective on the idea of dragon research. First, we have Isabella, aforementioned heroine who is a brave, funny delight of a main character. Then we have her husband, Jacob, who proves to be such a sweetie that I just melted when they interacted – call me an old romantic at heart, but I found his unwavering support of his wife’s passion (despite very real and present danger) to be truly wonderful, and somewhat a breath of fresh air. Plus, he totally would share his library with her. I wish we might have seen more of Isabella’s family life, though I’m sure we will in due course, and I do accept that it isn’t exactly the priority of a narrative about a research expedition. Overall, this book set up some interesting character dynamics and I can’t wait to see some of these personalities clash even further with each other, and with society’s expectations of them.
“A husband willing to fund a library for his bookish wife is not so easy to obtain; most would see it as a pointless expense. You might, however, find one willing to share his library.”
If I may say something about the pacing – for all I adored this book, I found it a tad strangely paced. It seemed as though the section at Khirzoff’s lodge happened too far through the narrative, so it was rushed along. After having him so long stand on the fringes of the narrative, it wasn’t a stretch to assume he would eventually somehow factor into what was happening with the dragons in Vystrana – or why else would Brennan bother to include repeated mentions of his character at all? Likewise, the thread regarding smugglers also seemed to tail off and lose steam. I feel as though so many of the threads of this novel weren’t fully wrapped up neatly enough for my own personal liking and I’m not sure if they will be in its sequels since, from the synopsis, it sounds like the second book in the series moves the action to a different country entirely. I’m happy to be proved wrong, though, if it all ends up tying together nicely in the course of the rest of the Lady Trent series.
“The hunt for spouses is an activity on a par with fox-hunting or hawking, though the weapons and dramatis personae differ. Just as grizzled old men know the habits of hares and quail, so do elegant society gossips know every titbit about the year’s eligible men and women.”
A Natural History of Dragons is a must-read for fans of both fantasy and historical fiction alike – it is an intelligent and engaging melding of the two genres to create something wonderfully rich. And, since she is actively carving her way out in a male-dominated field (science), Isabella presents a surprisingly timely heroine who assuredly pursues her right to study her passion (dragon), despite the societal censure that it earns her. Her incisive curiosity for the creatures, and for the natural world around her, simply oozes off the page, and the placing of this as a memoir of Lady Trent’s more youthful adventures serves to promise even more wilder and dangerous adventures to come.
“Be warned, then: the collected volumes of this series will contain frozen mountains, foetid swamps, hostile foreigners, hostile fellow countrymen, the occasional hostile family member, bad decisions, misadventures in orienteering, diseases of an unromantic sort, and a plenitude of mud.”