The seventh novel from science fiction and fantasy author Marie Brennan, A Natural History of Dragons is just what you’d expect from a graduate of Harvard who studied archaeology, anthropology and folklore.
Isabella Camherst, Lady Trent has been pursuing her love of dragons since she was a seven-year-old girl preserving Sparklings in vinegar (kind of like butterflies, but they’re dragons–not to be confused with dragonflies). Now at last she has released her memoir, A Natural History of Dragons, to give personal context to her existing scientific publications.
The novel is less of an all-encompassing autobiography, as I had expected, and more of a memoir of Isabella’s time in Drustanev, Vystrana, a fictional village akin to the isolated mountain towns of Eastern Europe. Early chapters provide the necessary background to appreciate Trent’s interest in natural history, but we do not dwell on her childhood. She shares only dragon related memories, and keeps the narrative focused toward the Vystrani expedition.
Essentially a travelogue, Isabella’s story shares more in common with academic-come-adventure tales than romantic novels of the period. The brief time spent in Falchester (at her mother’s behest) is the closest we come to Austen-style romance, and even then her hunt for a husband is tied to her lust for knowledge. Brennan walks this line without ever crossing into “sentimental” territory, a genre she frequently mentions and to which Trent turns her nose up.
Brennan’s experience in writing genre fiction shows in the details. While Lady Trent’s world is basically a fictionalized 19th century Europe, Brennan changes certain details to distinguish her world. Changing the names of months, for example, could be trite if not managed well. Yet Brennan never patronizes the reader with explicit definitions; meaning is drawn from context, as it should be. This may be obvious, but every reader of speculative fiction has come across a forced conversation in which a character explains basic concepts to another, as if they were as unfamiliar with these concepts as we are. (For more on this topic, I recommend Ursula K. Leguin’s essay, “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie.”)
Despite Isabella’s analytical nature, the book is not an encyclopedia of mythic beasts. An old fashioned mystery is at its core, as Isabella and her companions investigate the erratic change in behaviour of the rock-wyrms, who begin to prey on the Vystrani. The disappearance of their would-be host Gritelkin further paints the plot with dark strokes.
Overall, the pacing of the novel was appropriate to the Victorian style. Enough background is given to progress the expedition to Drustanev, building the story steadily, though at times I felt certain details were repeated unnecessarily at the expense of later chapters. The ending came with a flurry of action, as one expects in a mystery, yet I thought the final chapters were a bit rushed over. After such a lengthy buildup, it felt rather sudden with too many details skimmed over regarding the future of Drustanev and the companions’ return to Scirland. Anticipating the reader’s eagerness to read more, Brennan teases us with the promise of “future volumes” of Lady Trent’s numerous expeditions.
As if the story wasn’t awesome enough, Todd Lockwood’s beautiful cover art and inspired sketches put this over the top. Taking his cues from encyclopedic drawings of natural history books, the cover blends fact and fiction in a balance that perfectly reflects the tone of the novel. I sincerely hope that if this is to be a series, his illustrations will be ongoing as well!
I loved the book so much that I ordered in an extra copy at work so that I can have one for my shelf (and I can’t wait to see what that map will look like–a fantasy book without maps is like a day without sunshine).