📑 Review: A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan
"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." - from goodreads.com
"A Natural History of Dragons" is the first in a series of mock-memoirs written by a Lady Isabella Trent. Upon the publishing of this first volume, Lady Trent is already a world-renown dragon naturalist, who has decided to illustrate her childhood and foray/fascination into the world of natural science and dragons (something about after the/upon/due to) the request of several fascinated fans/readers, giving those who know of her a more intimate, no holds barred look at her life and adventures.
Despite the fact that the story is set in a Victorian era-like fantasy land where Dragons are real, the novel reads like an actual memoir. From the 'preface' to the division of chapters, Lady Trent's voice comes out strong and alive. And, at times, very sassy.
You never think you'd relate to a Victorian Dragon naturalist until you start reading about her life and she says things like
"I argue, to the contrary of Manda and her ilk, that such a deep and pleasant rapport is love, the common thread that may link friends and relations and spouses; and furthermore, the mightiest torrent of passion, without that thread woven into it, is mere animal lust."
when talking about how she feels about love, or what it hsould be, and you realize "damn, that's me."
Lady Trent has the sort of borderline sarcastic humour, no nonsense kind of attitude that I highly enjoy seeing portrayed in protagonists. She is frustrated with the confines that women automatically placed in from birth, but also understands the privilege (despite the restrictions) er social status provides her. A privilege that most women of lower births, and even some men, do not have.
She's intelligent, but also an idiot (see: some decisions she makes during her adventures), passionate to almost the point (and sometimes beyond the point, see: above) of rashness, stubborn and brave.
Though there is a bit of 'excitement,' so to speak mixed in, "A Natural History" falls more on the science/anthropology spectrum than it does true fantasy, in terms of what topics, plot points, etc. are focused on. Lady Trent is not your typical fantasy heroine, not because she's a lady or anything, but because she is a reader and a scientist. Therefore, as opposed to typical third-person narratives of a hero's journey, you get a borderline clinical and scientific narrative (except for the personal journey/parts), rare if not impossible to find in traditional fantasy.
If we're honest, the combination of Victorian sensibilities with science and discovery isn't always exciting, no matter how many dragons are involved. But, if you can get past the fact that our protagonist is not a local village boy who is, in truth, the chosen one, the hero meant to save the world from the big bad darkness that's threatening it along with a cast of diverse (in terms of races such as dwarf + elf, mind you, not our hopes for diversity), merry and occasionally magic-wielding creatures, then this is an enjoyable read.
And listen. I alternated between reading Lady Trent's account and listening to the audiobook, and I highly enjoyed doing both. As a memoir, the story works especially well as an audiobook (in my opinion, I love listening to memoirs).
Yes, it can be a bit dry and slow in some parts, even while listening. I alternated between being fascinated with the descriptions of Dragon Anatomy when it'd be described and frustration, wanting something mildly related to action to happen, and was rewarded for my patience. Within the typical things you'd expect of a memoir, childhood stories, milestones and big life events, there is in fact a plot that runs chronologically throughout. There are strange attacks and stranger footprints, foreign lands and ancient curses, and, of course, there is love and loss.
Also, dragons. Did I mention Dragons? What about the lovely illustrations of dragons and more interspersed within the book? Or, more precisely, Lady Trent's sketches? No? We'll they might be few, but I absolutely recommend getting the book both for the cover art and its detail of the musculature and skeleton of a dragon, and the sketches within.
Oh, and the story too.
(Some) Memorable Quotes:
“If you wish, gentle reader, you may augment your mental tableau with dramatic orchestral accompaniment.”
"The hunt for spouses is an activity on 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.
"But I know, at least, that you would keep a library on the subject, and I hoped that I might be allowed to read from it."
He regarded me with a bemused expression. "You want me for my library."
“But coming to terms with one’s sorrow is one thing; sharing it with strangers is quite another.”
If anyone has read A Natural History of Dragons, or any other of Lady Trent's memoirs, let us know what you think in the comments below! Comments also open to further book/movie/show recommendations, anything you’d like to see reviewed, or general feedback. We’d love to hear what you have to say!