A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan. ★★1/2
In short, there were not enough dragons.
The basic premise of this book is that it is the memoir of an early adventure of a naturalist famed for her study of dragons, Lady Isabella Trent. Thus it includes asides by Isabella and references to future events. However, the span of the novel covers only her first nineteen years of life, centering around one expedition to study dragons in a foreign land.
One of my problems with the book is that it is a second world fantasy and yet completely copies the social structures and culture of Victorian England. What’s the point? It didn’t feel at all like a second world fantasy, despite the made up place names. It would have made far more sense to make this an alternate history story, like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell or His Majesty’s Dragon, especially since A Natural History of Dragons was sort of playing into “The Good Old Age of British Imperialism” with Isabella going off to study dragons in foreign lands among superstitious peasants. There were also tinges of “white savior” there with saving the village peasants from marauding dragons being the undisputed duty of the faux-British science expedition.
In the case of a memoir book, there is the question of how many of the judgement are intentional character flaws of the narrator. Damira, one of the locals and the only other significant female character, did get a far amount of lines. I thought she was quite sensible, but Isabella did repeatedly characterize her as a “ham-fisted peasant woman.” We also learned very little about Damira besides her serving Isabella. At one point Isabella realized that she had never asked Damira about her family and personal life, which would probably be a good thing to find out. Isabella then proceeds never to think of this again.
As I already said, Damira was the only significant female character besides Isabella, and her role was limited. There were shades of Isabella being the “exceptional woman” who is “not like (read – superior too) other women.” Hopefully this is challenged at some point in the series with Isabella meeting another intelligent female character who is interested in scholarly pursuits. Unfortunately, I am unlikely to read farther into the series to find out.
I was not fond of Isabella herself. While I didn’t particularly hate her, she was on the whole forgettable. She also seemed to constantly stumble into situations due to a mixture of exuberance and stupidity.
The plot just wasn’t that interesting. The beginning of the novel is set up for the expedition, which itself wasn’t any more thrilling. The question of the expedition becomes: why have the dragons started attacking humans? After asking this question, the book meanders sedately among various minor occurrences until finally gaining some urgency briefly near the end.
While the title and cover of this book both seem to promise a significant amount of dragons, this does not materialize. Dragon involvement is limited to: watching them fly in the distance, dissecting them, and (most excitingly!) the exceptionally brief feeling of them swooping down on you from above.
As a positive, A Natural History of Dragons was a fairly quick and easy read. It’s one of those books where you don’t find so many problems with it until you finish and actually start thinking about it.
The best thing about it was some rather beautiful illustrations, which I highly appreciated. However, I don’t think they are wonderful enough for you to buy the book for.
I’m not sure who I would recommend this to, if anybody. The style of a faux-memoir of was interesting, even if it wasn’t pushed as far as it could have been. There aren’t enough dragons to recommend this to dragon fans. Maybe people who like historical fiction? Although if that’s what you’re looking for in a book, you might as well pick up historical fiction. Still, if you try A Natural History of Dragons, I hope you enjoy it more than I did.