Title: A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent
Author: Marie Brennan
Publisher & Release Date: Tor Books (Macmillan), 2013
The Hook: A memoir by “the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist.” Or a fantasy novel. Your call.
The Lowdown (from jacket): “All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.
“Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.”
Overall Impressions: For some reason, I had it in my head that this was an alternative history fantasy and the main character found dragon bones in a cliff like Mary Anning did with dinosaur bones. So wrong. Instead, it’s the story of a young woman struggling to navigate society expectations and her passion to know more and her scientist’s heart. And because Isabella tells the story as an older woman looking back, she acknowledges her at times impulsive behavior (yes, follow a strange man out of the village at night time) and lack of patience for and understanding of other cultures. And it is an impressive tale of a person not so much coming of age as coming into herself.
At 14, she disguises herself as a boy to go on a wolfdrake hunt because she wants so badly to see a dragon; she meets her husband Jacob Camherst because of their joint interest in natural history, especially dragons. When she miscarries, studying sparklings (a kind of miniature dragon) is what ultimately pulls her from her depression. When given the opportunity to meet Lord Hilford, a noted explorer and naturalist, she introduces her husband to him and encourages their friendship, eventually talking the two of them into allowing her to accompany them on his forthcoming expedition.
Brennan creates an amazing world. I kept trying to correlate it to ours – it felt like it should be, except that dragons are real. They’re not great and magical beings, but creatures her society doesn’t know that much about – curiosities to some, fascinations to others – somewhat like the great mammals of Africa to Europeans in the 19th century.
The expedition – a mix of scientific study combined with unexpected mystery and adventure – is where Isabella really starts her journey into the renowned scientist she will become. She has the opportunity to first-hand study dragons and her eyes open to other cultures. Her slow-growing friendship with Dagmira will influence how Isabella interacts with every other society she will visit.
The Highs: Brennen injected a hint of Georgette Heyer‘s writing flavor into Isabella’s story, particularly her relationship with Jacob. They like and respect each other when they marry, but they don’t really know each other, and it’s fascinating and rather beautiful to watch their relationship develop.
Isabella’s father, who may expect her to behave in a way befitting her place in society (think 1800s England) but also understands and loves her enough to give her a list of eligible men with excellent libraries and a willingness to share said library with a wife. There’s also a shorter list of those men who own Sir Richard Edgeworth’s “A Natural History of Dragons” – the book that fastened her on dragons. He tells her she doesn’t have to choose from that list but he thinks she might find those men good candidates.
I see from the publisher’s website that this will be a trilogy! I look forward to reading more of Lady Trent’s story.
Buzzkills: Spoiler [highlight to see- – Major character death].
The Source: Borrowed from public library.
No chocolate or dragon rides were exchanged for this review.