A Natural History of Dragons
I adore stories with dragons in them. I grew up with Anne MacCaffrey’s Pern books, and Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series of historical fantasies is among my favorites. So I jumped at the opportunity to review Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent, the first installment in a series of fantasy novels set in an alternative 19th century. The author had me at this passage in the prologue: “Be warned, then: the collected volumes of this series will contain frozen mountains, foetid swamps, hostile foreigners, hostile fellow countrymen, the occasional hostile family member, bad decisions, misadventures in orienteering, diseases of an unromantic sort, and a plenitude of mud. You continue at your own risk.”
The novel begins with the now old first-person narrator announcing that as an addendum to her scientific publications, which she assumes the reader to be familiar with, she proposes to tell the adventures that form the basis for the scientific discoveries that have made her famous. The narrative proper starts with the heroine, Isabella Hendemore, growing up as the only daughter (among several boys) of a wealthy landowner in Scirland (the equivalent of Britain; all places in the book bear imaginary names, but are – so far – based on real nations or cultures). Isabella has been fascinated by dragons from her early youth, trying to conserve dragonfly-like small species, and tricking her father into ordering books about dragons for his library.
When she is old enough to have a season in Falchester (London), her father surprises her by handing her a list of men whom he knows to have a copy of A Natural History of Dragons, the most comprehensive study on dragons at that time, in their libraries, and might be just open-minded enough to not mind a wife having scientific interests. Isabella comes across Jacob Camherst, one of the gentlemen on the list, in the king’s menagerie, pursues the acquaintance, and when Jacob asks for her hand, she accepts him gladly. Isabella’s early happiness is soon overshadowed by a miscarriage followed by depression, and in order to cheer up again, she once more takes up her dragon studies with great enthusiasm. When an opportunity opens up for Jacob to join an expedition to Vystrana (a Hungary of sorts), she first gets him to agree and then to permit her to come along.
Because everything is told from Isabella’s point-of-view, she is both easy and difficult to like. The enthusiasm and seriousness with which she follows her interests make her appealing, and the descriptions of the dragons and her research made me wish to observe over her shoulder, or at least watch a documentary about the dragons on the Discovery Channel. Marie Brennan does a great job in portraying the devotion and single-mindedness of the true scientist. With that comes the negative side to Isabella’s character: She is incredibly stubborn as well as endlessly and unabashedly manipulative to achieve her goals. Again this fits with the scientist’s mindset, but it makes her border on TSTL at some points (which, to give her her due, she always acknowledges in retrospect). With Isabella so much focused on dragons, the other characters remain rather opaque for greater lengths of the novel. This fits the overall tone, but makes them rather difficult to relate to until comparatively late into the story.
While there are certain romantic elements to the story, this novel is not a romance. However, the world-building is magnificent. The dragons are a delight, both majestic and dangerous. The landscapes are equally dramatic, and I enjoyed the way the foreign culture and the protagonists’ reactions were depicted.
I enjoyed reading A Natural History of Dragons a lot, and am looking forward very much to the next volume in the series. Because of the distance I felt to most of the characters and partly even to Isabella, the book does not quite reach DIK status, but it comes pretty close.