Mar 7, 2013

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

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.

A Sparlking (small dragon) by Todd Lockwood
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.
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.
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.

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.
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 clich├ęs.
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.

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?”
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.
More illustrations by Todd Lockwood:

Village scene by Todd Lockwood
Laboratory by Todd Lockwood

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.


  1. This sounds divine.

  2. Despite the fact that I am in the middle of more series then I could possibly get through in my lifetime, I think I may have to read this one....

  3. I have this on my wish list. It may have to move up the list though. :)

  4. I came across this at the library a little while ago, but wasn't too sure about it. I missed Memory's review somehow, but reading your review, I definitely have to add this to my tbr now.

  5. I am... I am going to get this. Right. Now. I think... I think I might buy it, if I can't get it at the library RIGHT NOW.

  6. Those illustrations are stunning. Plus I do love dragons... Can you see where this is heading? :-)

  7. I am SO excited to get my hands on this book (a girlfriend informed me that she bought me a copy, and I'm all grabby hands, send it to me now!). I LOVE good gaslamp fantasy, and I really like that this takes a naturalist view of dragons--I do love my sentient dragons, but I'm very interested to see a different take on them than those I usually read. The illustrations look amazing, and I really like what you had to say about the lead and small rebellions. Sometimes, small rebellions are the only kind these characters can fathom achieving--for them they're not so small. Very much looking forward to this, and glad to hear it's not going to end off at a bad place.

  8. Love the sound of this book. I hadn't heard of it before, so thank you for bringing it to my attention.

  9. I read about this in Shelf Awareness and it sounded so good!! I really should visit NetGalley more to get all these delicious-sounding books but at the same time - well, I don't think I can justify doing that with all of the other reading goals (unofficial) that I have. But I can always add this to the wish list or the TBR pile :-)

  10. I really like the sound of this one. A book that treats a mythical creature like a plain, ordinary so-realistic-it's-almost-boring one? right up my alley.

  11. You were right! This sounds like the perfect book for me *adds it to the birthday list*

  12. gosh, I already had this on my list thanks to Memory's review, and now it's TOP of my list. Great review, Ana! I really must get this book ASAP! lol the caps are for me, not for you, because I even have it in my cart on Amazon, along with 20 or so other books, and only &75 to spend in a coupon.....*choices* this sounds so good, though, and you referred to Persuasion, so how can I resist? Thank you!

  13. I received my copy of it this week, and it is gorgeous looking. I love the idea of focusing on dragons with a more scientific eye.
    And now I have to learn more about what, exactly, is gaslamp fantasy!


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