A Natural History of Dragons – Marie Brennan

About the Book 

Not a day goes by that the post does not bring me at least one letter from a young person (or sometimes one not so young) who wishes to follow in my footsteps and become a dragon naturalist. Nowadays, of course, the field is quite respectable, with university courses and intellectual societies putting out fat volumes titled Proceedings of some meeting or other. Those interested in respectable things, however, attend my lectures. The ones who write to me invariably want to hear about my adventures: my escape from captivity in the swamps of Mouleen, or my role in the great Battle of Keonga, or (most frequently) my flight to the inhospitable heights of the Mrtyahaima peaks, the only place on earth where the secrets of the ancient world could be unlocked.

Even the most dedicated of letter-writers could not hope to answer all these queries personally. I have therefore accepted the offer from Messrs. Carrigdon & Rudge to publish a series of memoirs, chronicling the more interesting portions of my life. By and large these shall focus on those expeditions which led to the discovery for which I have become so famous, but there shall also be occasional digressions into matters more entertaining, personal, or even (yes) salacious. One benefit of being an old woman now, and moreover one who has been called a “national treasure,” is that there are very few who can tell me what I may and may not write.

Beyond this point, therefore, lie foetid swamps, society gossip, disfiguring diseases, familial conflicts, hostile foreigners, and a plenitude of mud. You, dear reader, continue on 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. If my humble words convey even a fraction of that wonder, I will rest content.

In this first volume, I will relate to you how my career as a lady adventurer and dragon naturalist began, commencing at the creation of my childhood fascination with all things winged, and for the bulk of its length describing my first foreign expedition, to study the rock-wyrms of Vystrana. Common gossip has made the bare facts well-known, but I warn you, dear reader, that all was not as you have heard.

336 (Hardcover)
Published on February 5, 2013
Published by Tor
Author’s webpage

This book was provided for me to review by the publisher.

You can purchase a copy of this book here: A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent, A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent – Kindle

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The first thing anyone even looking at this book is going to notice is the artwork, so lets just get that part out of the way. Holy crap, this artwork is amazing. And the cover is the least of it, in my opinion. Drawings add a nice spice and are liberally peppered throughout the book to accentuate various points the narrator is trying to make, and it really helps. Not only does it add some visual stimulation to a more mental framework, but it’s just nothing short of damn beautiful. Seriously, the artist deserves an award for this one. Period.

A Natural History of Dragons is written in a memoir form, by the Lady Trent (who hasn’t attained her ladyship yet). This is written about her younger years, her discovery of science (not a hobby ladies of class subscribe to) and how she went about learning all the things her mother tried so hard to keep her from learning. While this book takes place on a secondary world, the mannerisms are very Victorian, an era that seems to crawl under my skin the wrong way in every single book I’ve ever read, but this one. It really worked here and I don’t think the book would have worked nearly so well if not for the era it had taken place in, with the social classes dealt with.

A Natural History of Dragons will either bore readers to tears, or they will absolutely love everything this book has to offer. I think it depends on mindset more than anything else. I am a science-minded person and I do (more often than I’d like to admit) read natural history and biology books that are more like doorbusting tomes.  Slow science discovery fascinates me. The realistic fight a woman has to be recognized as a formidable talent in a man’s world adds a nice spice to all the learning that my science aimed brain truly enjoyed. That being said, other people might find the details a bit too tedious, and if you are a person who doesn’t really give a fig about the anatomy of an animal or how archeology and the study of natural objects happens, this book might not work for you. You’ll probably find it boring, no matter how interesting the protagonist’s plight to be recognized for her intellect in her man’s world, is.

Isabella is a loveable character who put me in the mind of many early female scientists who were in for the love of the game, rather than anything else. Marie Curie, for example. Many areas of science have been pioneered by women who were too passionate to be able to sit down and shut up when they were told to do so. Brennan really infuses Isabella with that quality, and does it very nicely. Isabella isn’t a woman that does her time proud. She’s everything woman shouldn’t be and despite trying hard not to be that way, her inner science rebel always finds a way of peeking out at the most inopportune times.

She falls upon the sort of grudging respect relationship that a woman could hope for at a time like that. Things were awkward, and Brennan did a great job showing how a woman of her class might adjust to a life of marriage after being a member of her family’s house for so long, including her own boredom, and her faults with lacking at various wifely duties. It’s obvious that Isabella isn’t cut out to be a keeper of the manner, and soon the opportunity rises for her to go and do what she’s always dreamed of doing. Being able to do this takes a lot of convincing, and many people think she’s absolutely mad, but passion overrides that and she sets off as a young woman into an adventure that will make her cross her threshold into womanhood.

Isabella’s time with her husband and her group in the foreign country studying dragons is quite interesting, as much of how Brennan describes the naturalist and archeological methods of the time are, I’d assume, quite surprisingly accurate. In fact, everything from traveling (basically moving your whole house) to writing maps and interacting with the locals would be exactly how I’d expected it was in earlier days here. While many people might fault these parts for dragging on slowly, I will again remind readers that this book won’t please everyone. Those who are science minded might very well enjoy the scientific process that the group uses to discover as much as they can about these mysterious beasts. It’s like Brennan has taken her readers back through time to see how it was done years and years ago. Fascinating, and incredibly well researched.

Isabella is the star character, and you’d expect that from the narration of it. However, the story is being told from an old woman’s perspective and much of the romance and emotional mystery has been stripped from it, which I was grateful for. In a book, it’s enough to say that a couple found happiness. I don’t need to be part of their foreplay, if that makes sense. Brennan gives privacy where privacy is due, and her character makes plenty of mistakes and faults, so she’s not some perfect woman sent to blaze the way for science. No, I think half of A Natural History of Dragons is Isabella admitting she made one horrible mistake or another, which is amazingly refreshing.

While it may sound like this book was absolutely perfect, there was a few things that kicked it down a star ranking in my opinion. When Isabella has to face true tragedy, there is hardly any time spent on the emotion. She acknowledges it, but life moves on almost moments later and she’s back in the game and ready to go. While one side of me understands this, with my own cancer I tend to leave my “flip out” moments for those secret times when no one can see/hear me, I think it’s harder to empathize with the protagonist when we aren’t given any room to see or hear any of those private times as they are just vaguely alluded to.

Secondly, some of the “wrapping up” is pretty predictable, which was unfortunate. While I enjoyed Isabella the Naturalist, the end of the book felt more like the story of Isabella also known as Nancy Drew. That’s fine, but this switch of the character toward the end caused some of the mysteries to wrap up a bit too quickly and cleanly to be completely believable. In fact, the ending as a whole felt quite rushed and almost out of sync with the feeling Brennan had set up during the rest of the book. v

Do these cons take away from the book at all? In my opinion, it knocks it down a star, but that really doesn’t say much because this book really tickled an itch I didn’t know I had. I’m not a big fan of Victorian era things. It seems like every protagonist pushing boundaries in these Victorian books are just like the other victorian protagonists pushing their own boundaries. There’s little different and much the same. However, A Natural History of Dragons stuck out to me. The characters charmed me, the situations were interesting and well researched and I loved all the science and the science process minus a couple hundred years or so. Not only did Brennan tickle my fantasy bone, but she also tickled my intellectual one, and I appreciated that immensely. Brennan set a wonderful groundwork for an absolutely charming series and my one hope, my one true fervent desire is that the author writes fast, because I want to read the next installment in this series like, yesterday.

4/5 stars

10 thoughts on “A Natural History of Dragons – Marie Brennan

      1. If you want contemporary fantasy…

        Lies and Prophecy, a recent ebook (at the Book View Cafe) about a world where (like Myke Cole) the magic has returned, but its a couple of decades after that event. Magic is now a subject at a University. Four college students studying magic discover big things are afoot.

        She’s better known for the Onyx Court series, starting with Midnight Never Come. Its a loose series of books that follow how faerie interacts with humanity over time. First book is set in Elizabethan England.

        1. Thanks for the suggestions. I love her writing style and look forward to checking out more books by her. The one starting in Elizabethan England has me intrigued (I’m a huge geek for all things Elizabeth I).

  1. I finished this one last week and really enjoyed it. I loved the tone of the writing, and the exploration of the more scientific aspects of fantasy. And yes, the sappy part of me even enjoyed the romance. (“You want me for my library?”)

    1. Well I can see how it wouldn’t work for some people, quite easily. First of all, right now I’m in the mood for some fluff, and this is really some fluff. Secondly, I enjoy the science technicalities and tedious details, but if people don’t, then they’ll probably hate this one. There’s nothing wrong with that. We are all built different.

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