A Natural History of Dragons
By Marie Brennan
Published by Tor in 2013.
Isabella, Lady Trent, is one of the world’s more preeminent scholars on dragons, though it wasn’t an easy journey. In A Natural History of Dragons, author Marie Brennan tells Isabella’s story through the style of a Victorian memoir set in a fantasy realm in which dragons are not only real, but a part of the natural world. Here, dragons do not talk, keep princesses, hoard gold, or really do anything mythical. In Isabella’s world dragons are regarded as animals at best, and pests at worst; either way, the study of dragons is not a very lady-like pursuit. Despite the strict societal restrictions of her day (think Victorian-era Europe), Isabella is determined to study them. She manages to convince her loving husband to take her on an expedition to a remote mountain village to study dragons. She also manages to get herself into a fair bit of trouble along the way, facing the perils of smugglers, angry villagers, societal snobbery, and, of course, dragons.
A Natural History of Dragons has its share of flaws, which at once originate in the style of the book (Victorian-style memoir) and are redeemed by it. Our young heroine Isabella is adventurous, yet foolhardy; brave, yet naïve; intelligent, yet lacking in common sense; curious, yet disregarding of personal safety.
Young Isabella’s flaws are highlighted through the voice of her elder self, recounting her (mis)adventures after years of reflection and the gift of hindsight. In this way, many of young Isabella’s flaws are redeemed. We know (as the narrator tells us) that Isabella is about to make some stupid decisions, but she makes it through them and is wiser for them in the end. What gets irritating is that she calls out her mistakes before we even have the chance of experiencing them. These asides are at first very distracting. They interrupt the flow of the narrative at awkward times. Then, eventually, either Lady Trent stops interrupting herself, or I got used to her constant asides.
Though there’s a surprising shortage of dragons in the book, the plot is interesting, and Isabella’s little adventures are enough to keep the pace moving despite their absence. Don’t get me wrong—there are dragons. They’re just not the magical dragons of other books. They make brief appearances, usually in some sort of attack scene, and much of the book is focused on how little the people of Isabella’s world actually know about them. So, if you’re looking for a book about people riding dragons, talking to them, living with them, etc. you should probably look somewhere else.
In the end, I thought A Natural History of Dragons was a fascinating concept and certainly a different perspective of the fantastical creature we all know and love. Isabella is at first a slightly tiring main protagonist, who I eventually grew to love in all of her flaws. Throughout it all I felt like I was really reading the memoir of someone who had experienced all of this, and I almost wish that the book had taken place in our world, instead of Isabella’s. It would be even more fascinating to read a memoir of an alternate version of Europe whereupon dragons really do exist in the wild, but unfortunately I think I’ll have to keep waiting on that one.
Final thoughts: If you’re looking for a book that really focuses on dragons, this is not the one for you. Of course, if you want to read a completely different take on dragons, then I would definitely recommend A Natural History of Dragons. Brennan has created a believable fantasy world that looks shockingly like our own, with characters that seem like they could have been plucked straight from our own history.
Read the sequel:
The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan
More books with dragons:
Check back next Sunday for my review of: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki