“Be warned, then: the collected volumes of this series will contain frozen mountains, foetid swamps, hostile foreigners, hostile fellow countrymen, the occasional hostile family member, bad decisions, misadventures in orienteering, diseases of an unromantic sort, and a plentitude of mud. You continue at your own risk. It is not for the faint of heart – no more so than the study of dragons itself.”
So states the preface of Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent, the first volume in a projected series recording the life and times of the eponymous heroine, a self-taught dragon naturalist living in Scirland, which is more or less an analogue for Victorian England. This first book constitutes an accounting of Isabella’s childhood and adolescence, her marriage to Jacob Camherst, an academic, and their expedition to the mountains of Vystrana (which is more or less an analogue for Romania) to learn about dragons, which ends up being complicated by both the local religion and political intrigues.
A Natural History of Dragons is thematically much less concerned with dragons than the sexist social attitudes which attempt to curtail Isabella’s interest in them.
In hindsight, the dissonance between my expectations for this book and what it actually turned out to be is a contributing factor in my ambivalence towards it. Having been seduced by the undeniably beautiful cover art, I envisaged a story with a strong, primary focus on dragons – their physiognomy, habits, breeds and other peculiarities – set against a backdrop of detailed magic-scientific worldbuilding; something like an adult, novelised version of Graeme Base’s classic The Discovery of Dragons, perhaps. In my defence, I suspect this is an impression that the cover, title and preface all strive to convey to some extent, and it may well be that this constitutes an accurate assessment of the series as a whole. This first book, however, is thematically much less concerned with dragons than the sexist social attitudes which attempt to curtail Isabella’s interest in them, and as such functions more as a protracted justification as to how and why a Scirling lady ended up as a scholar and explorer than as a natural history. Obviously, dragons still make an appearance, but having anticipated a story that was primarily an adventure, it came as something of a let-down to find myself reading one that was much more internal and domestic. Read More »