Marie Brennan begins a thrilling new fantasy series in A Natural History of Dragons, combining adventure with the inquisitive spirit of the Victorian Age.
You, dear reader, continue 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. . . .
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.
A Natural History of Dragons is set in a dragon-containing secondary world (with no other magic, as far as I can tell) with the country our protagonist is from based on Victorian England. I have to admit, part of the reason I delayed reading this book for so long was because historic fantasy plus dragons conjured up Temeraire by Naomi Novik in my mind (the Napoleonic era is not so distant in time from the Victorian) and I did not feel the need for another dry fantasy book with dragons. Happily, it is not a dry fantasy book, despite the diagram on the cover.
What I enjoyed most about this book was the protagonist's voice. It's written in first person in the style of a memoir from the point of view of a much older Isabella recounting events from her youth. This means that we get more snarky reflections than we would have if the book was told by the younger Isabella, as well as commentary along the lines of "I was young and stupid". It's also clear from the start that this is the first book in the series and that Isabella intends to recount additional adventures in future books, while dropping tantalising hints about them along the way. I may end up reading the next book immediately, even though that wasn't my original plan.
The approach to dragons in this book is pretty much as advertised. Isabella is very interested in the study of nature and pursues her studies of dragons very scientifically, albeit in a very nineteenth century way. We also see the ways in which being female hinders her ability to study, as well as the way in which her upper class does not. I also sort of expected it to be partly the story of her being stuck with a horrible husband after being expected to marry young, but that was not the direction the story took, avoiding that very common trope.
To my eye, Brennan presented a modified historical society well and the way in which dragons were studied and presented to the reader was quite believable and consistent — especially if you overlook the magical aspect of dragons' existence. It covers dissection, the difficulties of preservation and a journey to study dragons in their natural habitats. This was a very enjoyable read and I will definitely be reading the next book in the series, sooner or later. I recommend it to all fantasy fans, especially those who like dragons (but also don't find the prospect of reading about their dissection distressing.)
4.5 / 5 stars
First published: 2013, Tor Books
Series: The Memoirs of Lady Trent book 1 of 5
Format read: ePub
Source: Purchased from iBooks