Review: A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

4.5 out of 5 stars

I had heard some mixed reviews of this… and I don’t know why they are mixed. I loved this and found it totally charming. I can understand people not liking the historical aspect of it if you aren’t a reader of historical fiction– it reads like a historical novel, albeit on what seems to be a different planet. It has a very mid-to-late 1800’s feel to it and the story is not a flash-bang kind of novel. It’s told like what it presents itself as and I’d think people would know that from the blurb. It has the pacing and tone of a Victorian novel. There was a definite Englishness about the place called Scirling and a very Russian feel to Vystrana. But the calendar months and holidays have very different names and the maps don’t look anything like our continents. Their pre-history includes people and buildings referred to as “Draconean” and include enormous ruins full of temples with hieroglyphics they haven’t deciphered (no Rosetta stone, I guess)  and dragon-headed gods.

This is the tale of Lady Trent, but when we meet her she’s just Isabelle, a strong willed, nature loving girl from a good family that consists of nothing but brothers and a mother daily scandalized by her daughters fascination with unlady-like pursuits. After a near-miss with a wolf-drake (a small but very dangerous dragon) that included wearing boys clothes and sneaking into the hunt, she then enters into what she called her “grey period”. She sets aside her fascination with natural history and bookish pursuits, and to mama’s relief, sets about being a good girl and being introduced to a society to look for a husband. We know from the title that this “grey period” could not have been the sum of her life and experience.

This is presented as a memoir of a woman who has lived an unconventional life researching dragons. There are references to other books she’s written in her past but this is her first memoir. She tells us she is now a very old lady, she can write how she likes, and she is going to write the truth regardless of popular taste and opinion (having suggested previous papers or novels were colored by such things) or even prudish propriety. I absolutely loved her. I would have loved to have her as a grandma or great auntie, and listen to her stories at dinner. We learn about that search for a husband – she was lucky in that, as she found a good man, who wanted a woman who could think and be a companion rather than a trophy to sit in his parlor. She also has the tendency to run into trouble, and she gets more shit for it than a man would. The adjectives I was going to apply to her, like independent, headstrong, reckless… would I use them if it were a male protagonist? We expect men to be independent and know their own mind, to not hold back when they see the way forward. Basically, she’s really smart and can work things out and these investigations lead her on the path to adventures!

The majority of this book is about a trip to a place called Vystrana to study the Rock-Wyrm (a big grey dragon with an icy breath). Their financier and leader of the expedition is Lord Hilford, an aging naturalist. Isabelle believes that she is ready for privations and hardships of such an expedition, but even the men aren’t quite ready for what they find. First of all, their contact in the little town of Drustanev seems to be missing. Worse, the people of the town didn’t know the nature of the visitors. They were expecting tourists, not researchers. Also, the usually shy and elusive dragons have begun attacking people. Everyone assumes the missing contact has been eaten. Add in the superstitious villagers, the wrath of a mythical half-man, half-dragon, and the Boyar, or local lord involved in some shady smuggling and the Scirling expedition faces threat from every side, even the spiritual.

This addressed a lot of issues. First, Isabelle is faced with a sullen woman as her “ladies maid”. They are basically the same age but Isabelle sees Dagmira as an unsophisticated country bumpkin and looks down on her. When she realizes that the valet hired to help the men is also Dagmira’s brother and the two are all alone in the world, she realizes how selfish and self-centered she’s been. They also touched on the practice of killing animals for research. Isabelle doesn’t flinch at this… at first. Then she sees behavior in dragons that suggests they are much more complicated creatures than she believed. Then the story faces the larger matter of how the aristocracy treats those considered peasants, and what it’s like for the locals to have a foreign aristocracy thrust on them (the Boyars in charge are not native to Vystrana but the aristocracy of a conquering nation). The subject of harvesting material wealth from the natural environment to the point of decimation, a common practice for the human race, is also brought up. Basically, you could say the whole theme of this is colonialism. But it doesn’t seem at all preachy or like a “big thoughts” book. It does give you plenty of action and story with great characters but it also has a lot of meaning.

And dem dragons, doh!

I mean, look at these illustrations! This is such a treat in a modern novel.

Opes, that’s not a dragon! It’s mah kitteh!

Happy Reading, everyone!

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