Book Reviews

Book Review- A Natural History of Dragons by Maria Brennan

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I purchased a copy of this book for my own enjoyment, and with no expectation of a review.

 

Brennan’s Natural History of Dragons tells the story of Isabella Trent and her love of dragons. Told in first person, the story takes us from Isabella’s first forays into naturalism, all the way to her first true dragon expedition. This is set in an alter-world with echoes of our own, and has a definite Victorian flair.

 

From a young age, our humble narrator had a deep love for all things flying. Childhood escapades include such scandalous acts as diseccting a dove to learn about flight, and disguising as a boy to hunt a wolf-drake.

 

During her ‘grey years’, Isabella must learn to act as a proper lady, make her dubious debut to Society, and spend her Season(s) trying to snag the last the she really wants- a husband. Isabella is quite lucky in snagging Jacob Camherst, a man with a heart and mind so similar to her own.

 

Despite the ‘unladylikeness’ of it, Isabella accompanies her husband to the wilds of Vystrana, on a naturalist expedition to study rock-wyrms. She comes into her own as a competent naturalist, and the team discovers some truly astonishing things about the elusive dragons, things that could have a world-altering impact.

 

This charming novel, first in a series, is an engrossing account of an expedition as much anthropology as naturalism. Isabella, and the expedition team, must learn to operate in the culture of the Vystrani, which means they must take pains to learn about that as well. Sometimes they are able to bend to customs odd to them, while at other times they are not, leading to friction with the local people. There are ups and downs for the expedition- harrowing thrills, life and death, and questions of ethics and morals.

 

A Natural History of Dragons is Darwin’s Origin of Species, if Darwin studied dragons. Brennan’s tale has more of a historical feel to it than a fantasy one. It is Isabella’s recounting of her youth and early (mis)adventures as a budding dragon naturalist. Dragons are very much part of this natural world, no mysticism or magick involved. I really appreciated that part. These beasties often get thrust in the role of big magickal baddie.

 

Isabella herself goes through a transformative process. She is young yet, and has a bit of an impetuous streak that leads her and her team to a bit of trouble at times. She, like her comrades, must learn to play the anthropologist and yield to local customs to achieve certain ends. If I had to wager a guess, I would say Isabella is an Aries. She certainly has many of the traits!

 

Loss is a part of any transformation, and this one is no exception. Among other things, Isabella loses her naivety about how the world beyond Scirland works. Her notions of what is ‘right’ and ‘proper’ are turned on end. There’s deeper loss as well; loss whose scars will run last a lifetime.

 

Brennan’s writing had an authentic feel. It was easy to get lost in Isabella’s memories, with the scenes vividly displayed in my mind’s eye. A truly grand story can draw you in completely, making that world just as real as this one. Brennan exceeded that expectation for me.

 

Isabella, as the memoirist, has delightful interjections and commentary on her own writing which are quite amusing. Scattered throughout the text are beautiful sketchs done by her, adding to the authentic feel.

 

If you like things anthropological, or things dealing with naturalism, if historical fantasy tickles your palate, if adventurous accounts akin to The Lost City of Z arrest your attention, then look no further! Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons can slake that thirst. Come, walk in a world where dragons dwell, and learn the secrets of the natural world.

 

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