A Natural History of Dragons

Marie Brennan
A Natural History of Dragons Cover

A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent


The first in a series of memoirs in which the famed dragon naturalist Lady Trent describes not only how she started on the path to becoming one of the most vibrant, scandalous, adventurous personas in the history of Scirland, but also the foremost authority on dragons. Marie Brennan struck gold when she put this together, I think. An incredibly fun, captivating tale of the struggle against sexism, unexpected love, and mystery.

Long before she became reknowned as the occasionally scandalous Lady Trent, Isabella Hendemore was just a girl that loved dragons. Defying the social constraints of women during her age, she manages to convince her husband to not only sign up but to take her along on a scientific expedition to the mountains of Vystrana to study the rock-wyrms there. But when the expedition arrives, they find a village laid siege to by fear of attack from the dragons in the area. Something is causing the dragons to attack people as never before, and as if that isn't trouble enough to handle, an ill-fated adventure to some mysterious ruins in the area awakens an ancient evil......

This is one of those books where the voice of the character and your relation to it determines entirely how much you enjoy the tale. If you find yourself less than charmed, it will eventually fall flat, but if you like Isabella the story only gets better and better.

I absolutely loved Isabella, a young woman with a defiant streak whose love of dragons makes her not only defy every social convention that relegates her to the side for being a woman, but also go to extreme lengths, eventually going on the expedition that sets the course of her lifetime. With a splash of wit and a charm that makes her fun to read about, Isabella's a great heroine in what's certainly one of the oddest adventure tales I've read to date.

Perfectly juxtaposed against the trials and tribulations of the younger Isabella is the battle tested voice of Lady Trent, who provides an often snarky, straight shooting voice that gives hints of not only the crazy, borderline scandalous events she eventually endures before being mostly accepted as a celebrated scholar, but also of the emotional and often personal toll that her lifestyle takes on her as a result, especially in regards to her family. It doesn't occur often, but when it does, Lady Trent's narrative can provide a poignant depth to the tale that gives it a sense of gravity unmatched anywhere else in the tale. Combined, the two voices weave a story that proved almost impossible for me to put down.

Marie Brennan perfectly captures the aristocratic, Victorian atmosphere to serve as the beginning point of the story, depicting the struggle Isabella endures because of her love of natural history. In a society where "the perfect woman" is the ultimate housewife that also manages the practical side of her husband's business whilst simultaneously raising his his children, Isabella struggles to be seen as a scholar where there are no female scholars, to be treated equally by the learned men she interacts with when society dictates she can never be equal to them. It's a coup de grace for Marie Brennan, the ultimate form of social commentary; commentary that not only feels entirely natural to the story, but can be reinforced, constantly depicted at every twist and turn, and never feels too much, excessive, or heavy handed. The sexist bias always feels more like a fact of life for Isabella than Brennan trying to force feed you her propaganda, and that's what makes it so powerful.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect when I started reading this, to be honest, it's one of the few books I've rarely read any reviews of beforehand. With cover art like that, there was no way I wasn't going to read this. I'm unashamedly shallow like that. I think that this lack of research actually made me enjoy the book more in the long run, as I hadn't really formed any expectations per se. A tale of a scientific expedition to the sleepy village of Drustanev to study dragons, there are remarkably few dragons and instead what we have is first and foremost a tale of mystery.

When the expedition arrives, they fail to rendezvous with their local contact, and from there things only get mysterious as they not only cope with the unusually aggressive behaviour of the rock-wyrms, but also with the mystery surrounding their missing contact and the strange events that begin to occur in the village after Isabella explores a local ruin. As the tale progresses, Marie Brennan slowly doles out an odd assembly of clues, and it's up to the reader to either try and figure out which clue fits which particular mystery, or just relax and enjoy the tale, until everything comes together in the end. Whichever path you pick, the book becomes a fun read. Some things you guess, some things are quite clear, but others come out of left field, and together it all works.

I enjoyed it all a lot. I expected to like it, with an apparent focus on dragons and all, but I never expected it to prove such a fascinating read. With a uniquely captivating main character, and a rich, layered world that is as easy to imagine as it is interesting to read, all glued together by a series of mysteries as fun as they are engaging, this was very simply a very fun read for me. It won't be for everyone. If you find yourself less than charmed by the narrating voices of Isabella and Lady Trent, the book will immediately lose a lot of the potency that made me enjoy it so much. Also, Marie Brennan's determined stance on sexism in the novel will definitely not work for folks who prefer escapist novels where current social issues aren't addressed or even depicted in anyway. As natural as it feels to me, how well it works will always boil down to the sensibilities of the reader. If you have an interest in this, I can heartily recommend it, but be warned it may not be what you expect it to be.