A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan
A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent
(Description nicked from B&N.com.)
“You, dear reader, continue at your own risk. It is not for the faint of heart—no more so than the study of dragons itself. But such study offers rewards beyond compare: to stand in a dragon’s presence, even for the briefest of moments—even at the risk of one’s life—is a delight that, once experienced, can never be forgotten. . . .
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.”
The mixing of Regency and Victorian literature with fantasy has become more popular in recent years. Some authors choose to emulate the “voice” of those periods, while others simply use them as inspiration. Brennan goes the former route by writing her novel as a memoir, which I personally haven’t seen before. I enjoyed seeing a Victorian-style alternate world through the eyes of one of its residents.
I think I know too much about that time in British history, though, because I’m not sure that I found Isabella believable as a character from that time. I can certainly see how she got to the point that she’s supposedly at while writing the memoir, but she also seems to have not been as invested in the cultural strictures that were so prevalent. I would have believed it more if she had taken more part in the society that she was brought up in. I did admire her spirit—women in that culture didn’t have a lot of freedom, and Isabella took what was the likeliest path to being a scientist.
I also thought that the novel moved a tad too slowly. The story hints at all of these exciting adventures and discoveries, but the book only covers Isabella’s childhood and her first outing after getting married. This outing doesn’t bring her into a huge amount of contact with dragons, which are (of course) what we’re waiting to see Isabella deal with.
On the plus side, Brennan’s worldbuilding is top-notch. She obviously has a grasp of not only what life would be like her alternate England, but also how things would be in the world at large. Dragons aren’t merely fantastic creatures dropped into the scene for the sake of effect; there’s a real sense that they play a larger role in the narrative, and thus Isabella’s role in the overall story will be large as well.
While I do think this novel’s pace could have been a bit more brisk, A Natural History of Dragons is a complex and cultured tale of a young woman defying social norms to pursue her passion. The fact that her passion is the study of dragons adds the happy twist to this tale of Victorian science and exploration.
This review appeared on Owlcat Mountain on April 9, 2013.