A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan
Actually, I’d probably have to change the headline into “A Natural History of Dragons by Lady Trent“. She’s the fictional author of this book, telling the reader her life’s story. And that’s one hell of a story told by one hell of a lady.
But let’s go back one step first and appreciate the mastery Marie Brennan exhibits. She makes it seem effortless to write a book that so well emulates the time period of boundless exploration while never forgetting that the book was written by Lady Trent. She stays in character throughout the story and builds the most fitting and believable narrator I’ve read in a long time.
“One benefit of being an old woman now, and moreover one who has been called a ‘national treasure,’ is that there are very few who can tell me what I may or may not write.”
Lady Trent, who writes her memoir, is the character I’d like to meet the most in real life. I’ve never gotten so invested into a story and its protagonist this fast before. It didn’t even take the first page to make me chuckle and that’s a good sign if I’ve ever seen one. Even the best books take a few pages to hook me, so I was off to a very good start here.
The story plays in a 19th century world with colonialism, exploration, and upcoming sciences, where our heroin is born into an affluent family. From early on, she has a fascination with wings, natural history, and, of course, dragons, but a woman in these times normally can’t pursuing such interests. She’s the first, but that doesn’t deter her in the least. She’s headstrong like that. And since she’s not content with the boring life of a married wife, she pushes her husband towards an expedition into the Vystrana mountains to look for dragons.
She, of course, is only a hanger-on to her husband, promising to use her talent as an artist to sketch the dragons for research purposes. But someone like her isn’t satisfied with being left at the village and so she takes more part in the expedition than her three companions might have initially thought. Her intelligence and knowledge help to make her into an explorer in her own right and she finally gets her wish: to see and study dragons.
Now, taking the title of the book into consideration, you might think that dragons are on the fore, but I found the few parts with actual dragon research to be lacking. Much of the book is about their stay in the Vystrani village and the problems they encounter with the villagers. There have been attacks by dragons (unusual in this part of the world) and the scientists take on the ire of the villagers. I’d have liked to read more about the dragons and their behavior, and while they make breakthroughs, they seemed lackluster in the whole picture.
But then again, why would she write much about her actual work in her memoir? Such is probably easily accessible through the other, scholarly books she’s written in her life. A shame these aren’t available to us.
The prose, and the old Lady Trent’s rational view of the world, does its best to elevate an interesting premise into a book you can devour. After reading the first, I near instantly went to the second, and then the third. I’m so glad this series is longer than the usual trilogy and I can already give away that the other books are even better than the first.
Concluding: It’s the brilliant story of a headstrong woman defying society and accomplishing her dream. It’s told by the Lady Trent herself and she’s the character I’d like to meet most. While dragons aren’t as prominent as I’d thought, the story of Lady Trent making her first baby steps in the study of dragons is engaging. There’s really no good reason not to pick up this book and hopefully the whole series.