Book Review: A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan
Wow, I really liked this book — everything from the story and the characters and the writing down to its stark yet elegant cover which first drew my eye to its spot sitting on a store bookshelf. I blame my background in the biological sciences, since it seems I can’t help but be intrigued by anything that looks like it has anatomical drawings on it.
As indicated by its title, the novel is told in the form of a memoir from the venerable Lady Trent, leading research and expert on the matter of dragons. But in the time her story takes place, she was known simply as Isabella Camherst, a newly married 19-year-old lady of Scirland in a society where women were still mostly restricted from taking up the scholarly pursuits. This book is an account of how her love for dragons and science manifested at a very young age, and how a serendipitous opportunity to join an expedition to study dragons changed her life.
How interesting could this book be, I initially thought to myself. Is this whole thing going to be about some fictional old lady waxing nostalgic about her life researching dragons? I think a part of me expected nothing but a collection of anecdotes. I also might have had it in my head that this was going to read like a fantasy version of something like Jane Goodall’s Through a Window, except with dragons instead of chimpanzees.
In the end, none of what I thought came even close, because there actually was a plot, and a pretty good one at that. I was surprised to see there was a thread of mystery woven into the story: something strange is afoot in the host village Isabella and her companions are staying in, and on top of that, the native species of rock-wyrm has become prone to attack humans, which isn’t their usual behavior. These are the questions that Isabella has to answer while their expedition is in the Vystrani Mountains.
Of course, there ended up being the anecdotes I’d been expecting too, but they mostly came near the beginning. I didn’t like these as much as I liked the main story about the expedition, but they did give pretty good insight into Isabella’s character and personality. I didn’t care much for some of her childhood experiences because often she came across as too much of a brat, but I did love the story of how she met her husband Jacob. It was such a sweet, awkwardly romantic scene that I swear my eyes practically started watering up along with Isabella’s when she burst into tears of happiness.
My favorite thing about the book, however, was its overall concept. I didn’t think I was going to take to the writing style, what with the stuffy narration from the get-go, but it actually came across in a very natural way that was nowhere near as distracting as I’d expected. What struck me is that you could also easily contrast the young, impetuous and excitable Isabella in the memoir to the older, more mellow and experienced Lady Trent who is “writing”, and still get the sense she retained all that determination and humor in her personality. I thought it was a cool way of presenting the novel, and Marie Brennan pulled it off perfectly.
Also, I’ve seen fantasy deal with the subject of dragons in many ways; sometimes they’re the monsters for the heroes to kill, sometimes they’re intelligent and have the ability to speak, forming partnerships with humans or even taking human shape, etc. However, I personally liked how this book tackled the matter by painting dragons as simply another kind of wild animal species, as well as the main character’s biologist/naturalist perspective to want to observe and study them. Like I said, perhaps it’s due to my own educational history and interest, but this aspect of the book really appealed to me.
This was just a great read all around, the experience made even better for me because it was such an unexpectedly pleasant surprise. To summarize: A very good book featuring an interesting concept, engrossing plot, and a refreshingly strong female protagonist.