I wanted both to see dragons, and to understand them. I wanted to stretch the wings of my mind and see how far I could fly. I wanted, in short, the intellectual life of a gentleman—or as close to it as I could come.A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent is a fictional memoir by the eminent Lady Isabella Trent, a renowned dragon naturalist from the country of Scirland. Set in a world inspired by the early Victorian period, the novel follows a passionate and intellectually curious young Isabella’s first steps into naturalism, with particular emphasis on her first field expedition – a journey to the country of Vystrana to study its native dragons.
I should probably start by telling you what A Natural History of Dragons isn’t: it’s not really a fantasy novel along the lines of Tooth and Claw, The Other Wind, Seraphina or Temeraire. Marie Brennan’s dragons are, in this first novel at least, presented as animals. They’re the focus point of Isabella’s passion for the natural world, but they’re no more interesting than, say, elephants or lions. Of course, I do find elephants and lions plenty interesting, but readers who go in expecting sentient beings like the ones in the novels I mentioned above will risk disappointment.
With that out of the way, I’ll tell you what this novel actually is: it’s a wonderful example of gaslamp fantasy, and it does a great job of capturing the feel of Victorian travel memoirs. There are chapter summaries (often used humorously), narrative asides, and plenty of direct appeals to the reader. The story is told by an elderly Lady Trent looking back on her childhood and youth, and her charming narrative voice put me in mind of Amelia Peabody and won me over from page one.
Some of the lovely illustrations by Todd Lockwood.
In fact, the juxtaposition of a contemporary point of view with a retrospective one is one of the most interesting things about A Natural History of Dragons: the two concurrent perspectives allow for asides, interrogations, and commentary on the story as it unfolds, and these are presented in a way that never feels heady-handed. Before I can give you a concrete example, I’ll have to tell you a little bit more about Isabella’s world: it’s different from ours in some very obvious ways, namely the existence of dragons, but the social structure and especially the gender dynamics are very much like those of the early 19th century. This means that Isabella has to overcome a series of obstacles before she can fulfil her career ambitions, which are not only social but also psychological. She’s told by the world around her that her passion for dragons is not appropriate for a lady, that it makes her broken and unlovable, and before she can defy convention she must defeat this idea in the private space of her head. Which is why she finds herself thinking:
No gentleman would want a wife covered in scars from misadventures with dangerous beasts. No gentleman would take on a woman who would be a disgrace to him. No gentleman would marry me, if I kept on this way.Here we see fourteen-year-old Isabella’s defiant streak, but also her insecurities and her very real fears of financial destitution in a world where marriage was a woman’s only career option. Finally, we see her current knowledge, acquired over a lifetime of rejecting convention, that one can go beyond “the world simply doesn’t work that way” - but it takes time and negotiation and the luxury of a backup plan.
For a few trembling, defiant moments, I wanted to tell my father that I would live a spinster, then, and everything else be damned. (Yes, I thought of it in those terms; do you think fourteen-year-old girls have never heard men swear?) These were the things I loved. Why should I give them up for the company of a man who would leave me to run the household and otherwise bore myself into porridge?
But I was not so lacking in common sense as to believe defiance would result in happiness, for me or anyone else. The world simply did not work that way.
Or so it seemed to me, at the wise old age of fourteen.
As Memory noted in her review, A Natural History of Dragons is very much about small acts of rebellion. At first Isabella doesn’t really set out to demolish the social system that excludes women from public spaces and professional interests, but rather to carve a space for herself within it. This has the potential to be frustrating, especially if you believe, as I do, that no solution is permanent unless flawed social systems change. But my thoughts as I read A Natural History of Dragons were very much the same as my thoughts as I read, say, Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Big acts of rebellion that completely cut with everything that came before are not something everyone can afford. Yes, trailblazers like Isabella use the system to their advantage, but the example they set still opens up new possibilities for permanent change.
This retrospective awareness is also visible in Isabella’s attitudes towards colonial privilege. For example, she says:
I have written before about Drustanev, in A Journey to the Mountains of Vystrana. If you should happen to own a copy, though, or are intending to buy one (as I encouraged before), I beg you not to pay any attention to what I said there concerning the village, or indeed the Vystrani people as a whole.I thought there was perhaps room for the novel to delve deeper when it comes to this, but hopefully the sequel will tells us more about colonialism in Isabella’s world. I’m also looking forward to seeing where Isabella’s journey will take her in regards to her feminist consciousness. She’s still only nineteen when this novel ends, and I have a feeling her acts of rebellion will become more and more overt the older she gets and the more confident she becomes.
The words I wrote then heartily embarrass me now. I was attempting, against my inclination, to conform to the expectations of travel writing, as practised by young ladies at the time. It is a worse piece of drivel than Mr. Condale’s Wanderings in Central Anthiope, inspired more by the theatrical convention of colorful, semiprophetic Vystrani characters than by the people I knew in Drustanev. To hear that book tell of it, Vystrana is a land of wailing fiddles, flashing-eyed women, and sweet, strong wines.
Which is to say, a land of the most tedious clichés.
As you’ll have gathered by now, A Natural History of Dragons is the first book in a series, but there’s no frustrating cliffhanger ending and it can be read as a stand-alone. If you’re anything like me you’ll still be eager for the next book, but because you want to spend more time with Isabella rather than because you were robbed of a satisfying conclusion.
Other bits I liked:
“Are you that bored?”More illustrations by Todd Lockwood:
I met his gaze directly. “You have no idea. At least when men visit with friends, it is acceptable for them to talk about more than fashion and perhaps the occasional silly novel. I cannot talk to ladies about the latest lectures at the Philosophers’ Colloquium, and men will not include me in their conversations. You allow me to read whatever I wish, and that spares my sanity. But books alone cannot keep me company for a year.”
I envied Mr. Wilker, for the simple fact that our society made it easier to transcend class than sex. Which was not only unfair of me, but in some respects inaccurate: there is sometimes a greater willingness to make an exception for a woman than a man, so long as her breeding is good enough. But at the tender age of nineteen, I had not yet seen enough of the world to understand that.
Other reviews:: Stella Matutina, Thea at Kirkus, Liz Bourke at Tor, The Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia
Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%. I downloaded a review copy of this book via NetGalley.