Book Review: A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan

Multiple people (whose tastes I trust) have repeatedly recommended me the Memoirs of Lady Trent, and I finally got to reading it. I can see what the fuss was about, as it is certainly a unique work in the realms of fantasy.

What to Expect

Written in first person as a memoir (an old lady telling of her youthful adventures), Brennan’s novel captures the feeling of Jane Austen with a judicious amount of dragons.

The story starts when the protagonist – Isabella – was a little child. She surveys the events that made her fall in love with dragons, and then her first expedition to learn more about them (in the name of science!). Events slowly progress, between her personal life, her desire to study, and the balance of actions between man and nature.

The books are set in a secondary world that is strongly reminiscent of 19th century Europe, with some interesting twists that are only hinted at.

What I liked

Lady Trent is a wonderful character. The memoir style highlights both her strong character (achieved over many decades), and her youthful enthusiasm. Brennan does a credible job of balancing an Austen-like writing style for modern fantasy readers.

The same with the dragons, an obvious big part of the story. Since this is a “natural history”, Brennan balances both the study of them as wild animals (in the same sense that bears and wolves still plagued Europe) while keeping the sense of wonder. One certainly wishes they could stuy the dragons with Isabella!

What to be aware of

Though strongly reminiscent of our world’s European culture, the story is set in a secondary world. There’s no map, presumably because that wouldn’t belong in a memoir but that makes it a bit disorienting. I know all too well about balancing secondary worlds with a deep historical-fantasy settings from my own writing, and I do appreciate the efforts – I just wish there was a bit more in the first book.

Isabella is a wonderful person, very engaging and her enthusiasm makes us want to read more. That said, do bear in mind that though she is spirited and does more than is normal for women in such a culture, there is the constant struggle in a misogynistic society. Also, some of the other characters seem to have less of an agency and depth than one might have wished for.

Lastly, this is a memoir – it is charming and lovely, with delicately written wit and very enjoyable overall – but don’t expect thriller pace or high-action sequences with the dragons.

Summary

Highly recommended novel, a very strong start to a promising series. Brennan captures the sense of a woman in the 19th century striving to do science against a patriarchal establishment (and there were many examples from our own world for such!), the sense of time and culture (is not of place – see my note about maps), and the wonder of dragons.

Get your copy and delve into this unique fantasy novel – you won’t regret it.

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