When I first got my hands on A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoire by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan, I expected a book brimful of, well, dragons. Instead, the focus was on the “memoire” part of the title. Fortunately, I didn’t mind at all. Brennan’s latest work, first in a planned series, offers the rich and engaging story of a thoroughly believable character dealing with the problems and mysteries of a unique fantasy world with marvelous parallels of Victorian Europe.
Lady Isabella Camherst
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any dragons. There are plenty of them; and our protagonist, Lady Isabella, has loved them for as long as she remembers. Her only problem is that she is a Scirlandian noblewoman and, as such, is not expected to be interested in science. Fortunately, she marries Jacob Camherst, a young baronet whose only interest seems to be science. Through the uncompromising narration of an older Isabella, A Natural History of Dragons is the story of the misadventures of her first scientific expedition.
From there on, this memoire takes an unexpected but realistic turn. Isabella’s love of dragons seeps through the pages from her early childhood—when she collected sparklings, little animals that seem to be a cross between butterflies and dragons—through her painful adventures with a dangerous wolfdrake when she was fourteen, to her expedition to the cold mountains of Vystrana to study the indigenous rock-wyrms. Yet, hardly anything is known about dragons in Isabella’s time, and they are both dangerous and difficult to reach. Because of that, A Natural History of Dragons doesn’t focus so much on the dragons themselves as on the humans’ often futile attempts to learn more about them. All of this is laden with a riveting dose of mystery when it turns out that the dragons are attacking humans, something they don’t usually do. Isabella takes it upon herself to find out why.
Through its realism, A Natural History of Dragons isn’t simply another book about dragons, but an honest and utterly natural exploration of science and the endeavor of normal people to come to deeper insights. Its absorbing voice can be either clinical or emotional, to suit the moment. Lady Isabella is a thoroughly flawed and gratingly self-important and haughty woman who, in her hunt for both dragons and academic recognition, displays a fallacious worldview that goes through significant development throughout the story. She is astutely self-aware, however, and not above admitting she’s wrong when she realizes it. Her voice is rich and humorous, and sparkles with wit and spirit. Brennan’s narration, through Isabella, is gorgeously skillful and grounded in the vivid details of the dragons, the people, and the world around them. Through the comprehensive scientific observations as well as the stunningly beautiful and very well-placed illustrations by Todd Lockwood, I almost started to believe dragons truly exist.
A Victorian world
The world, too, is enthralling and vividly detailed. While this story is obviously narrated to an audience living in and familiar with this world, A Natural History of Dragons gives exactly the right amount of information. The biggest strength of Brennan’s world is its astounding balance between the obviously Victorian English elements and the unique and original fantasy spin given to it. Through hints dropped here and there, it becomes apparent that there is a lot more to this world than meets the eye—both in the world itself and in its history—and I look forward to exploring other parts of it in future installments in the series.
The problems A Natural History of Dragons and the people therein face in their world are realistically rooted in our own world as well, while still feeling original and actually giving meat to the story. The Scirlandians are educated and cultured, and they believe themselves above the heathen peasants of backwater mountain villages. Throughout the book, they have to learn to treat these people as human beings just like themselves, and to deal with their elitist mindsets before it means the end of their expedition. Another question asked throughout the story is whether it is right to kill a dragon for scientific purposes, or even as a trophy.
More women, please!
Unfortunately, while Lady Isabella is a wonderfully written and incredibly strong female character, possibly one of the best I’ve ever encountered in fantasy, she seems to be the only one in her world. The other members of her expedition—all of them male—are equally well-written and interesting to read about, especially from the perspective of Isabella herself. All other women in A Natural History of Dragons, however, seem to range from annoyingly stubborn and headstrong to plain and shallow gossipers. In a novel so strongly built around a strong female lead and her believable and often touching adventures, the absence of other interesting women is a huge shortcoming.
Why should you read this book?
If you are looking for a book filled with dragons, A Natural History of Dragons may not actually be the right book. It is, however, an honest, fascinating, and absorbingly touching story of genuine human beings and the pursuit of science at all cost. If you are looking for a grown-up version of How to Train Your Dragon, with some Jane Austen mixed in, I would definitely suggest picking up A Natural History of Dragons. It is an extraordinarily well-written and tremendously gripping tale filled with mystery, humor, discovery, and originality.
Stephan received a review copy of A Natural History of Dragons courtesy of Tor.