A Review of A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan


Sometimes I have a very hard time finding good books to read.  I can search for hours looking for something that looks like I will really enjoy it.  It’s hard to find something that holds up against great stories such as The Lord of the Rings or Pride and Prejudice.  Yes, those are what I consider great.  I often want to find the next great epic series—one that will take me forever to read and in which I can really fall in love with the characters—and those are even harder to find.  When I go on a long search for a good book, I usually don’t do that well.  It is the impulse reads that I find can be really enjoyable, even if they don’t quite live up to the epic series standard that I seem to have.  This was the case with the book that is the subject of this review: A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan.  I did zero research or reading on this book before picking it up.  I did see that Tor Books had posted an interview with Marie Brennan on Facebook, but I didn’t actually look at it other than to say, hey, I’m going to read that book.  While probably not my best impulse find, I have to say I really enjoyed reading it, though it wasn’t quite what I expected from the outset.

The Good:

If you enjoy reading classic literature from Jane Austen’s time and you like novels with an element of fantasy, you are in luck.  A Natural History of Dragons is a fantastic mix between Victorian society and the world of dragons.  It takes place in a different world but has many parallels to ours.  The country of Scirling is a mirror of England during the Victorian age with the same seasonal search for husbands by the young upper-class ladies of the country.  Lady Isabella Trent writes this as a memoir, so we meet her as she describes her days as a young girl more interested in anatomy and the natural history of birds and “sparklings” than in more lady-like pursuits.  She is fascinated with the book A Natural History of Dragons and connives her father into purchasing a copy.  Eventually, however, her mother gains sway over her husband and daughter and Isabella is forced to dedicate herself to being more of a lady for a few years.  When her first season “out” approaches, she dreads having to marry a man that restricts her to the usual social functions of women, but her father pays a matchmaker to come up with the names of several men who own a copy of “A Natural History of Dragons” and who may be more lenient towards their wife’s unique interests, and yes, she does marry one of them.

The beginning of the story is just a lead-up to Isabella’s accompanying her husband on an expedition to study dragons.  Many things happen to the company of four on the expedition—they travel to a remote region and encounter a culture and language different than their own, the dragons behave differently than anything they had heard of or experienced before, and Isabella strives to be included in more than a secretary-type role.

I love the way the expedition is introduced to the culture of their host village in the foreign country of Vystrana.  There are definitely many points of friction—different language, different religion, a suspicion of the foreigners, and the fact that their contact seems to have disappeared.  At one point the members of the expedition are accused of inviting the wrath of a local monster/spirit and have to undergo various religious ceremonies in order to be cleansed.  Isabella is a lover of natural history; a scientist who has a hard time even understanding why her childhood friend reads novels.  Ms. Brennan conveys Isabella’s problems interacting with people that are different than her very well, and it is interesting to see how she develops a respectful relationship with her Vystrani lady’s maid.

Ms. Brennan does a good job exploring gender biases in a Victorian-type society as Isabella gradually helps people’s views evolve on what women can accomplish and do. Throughout the memoir, Isabella inserts little comments along the lines of “my editor will probably complain about me using such words” that is an interesting way of involving the reader in exploring the way Isabella tries to separate herself from traditional women’s roles and behaviors.

The Bad:

While I really enjoyed the book and it kept me turning pages, it lacked that little something that makes it a great book.  The characters could have been explored in a little more depth, but as it was a fantasy novel written as a memoir, that would have gone against the format.  Memoirs are not really my favorite type of writing either—I prefer to be in the action when it is happening rather than looking back on it from years away—but it was interesting to see a fantasy novel written this way.

I mentioned above I loved the introduction of the culture—I did, but I thought even more could be done.  We don’t meet many of the villagers, for reasons that will become obvious if you read the book but I would have enjoyed knowing more about the place the expedition was staying, some Vystrani history and more about the villagers and what they did day to day.

It is kind of implied that this is the first in a series of books about Isabella, though I am not sure how many are planned.  While the novel was tied up pretty nicely, I look forward to more novels about Lady Trent in order to see how she continues to grow as a natural historian of dragons and as a woman.

The Verdict:

Read:  If you enjoy novels from the Victorian age as well as fantasy, you will enjoy this mix of the two types of books.  It is well-written, easy to read, and has enjoyable themes.

Don’t read: If you REALLY don’t like fictional memoirs I suppose you wouldn’t want to read this.  Otherwise I have a hard time coming up with reasons not to read.

Written by Heidi V

Heidi is a co-creator and writer at Definitely Not for the Birds (DNFB). She is an avid reader, a die-hard Badger fan, and knows from experience that a good hike can solve almost any ailment. Follow Heidi @heidi_5 and DNFB @not4birds.