Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Review: A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan
Published: Tor, 2013
Series: Book 1 of the Memoirs of Lady Trent
Awards Nominated: World Fantasy Award, Hugo Award for Best Series

The Book:

You, dear reader, continue at your own risk. It is not for the faint of heart - no more so than the study of dragons itself. But such study offers rewards beyond compare: to stand in a dragon's presence, even for the briefest of moments - even at the risk of one's life - is a delight that, once experienced, can never be forgotten. . . .
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.” ~WWEnd.com
This series had been on my radar for years, and I finally decided to give it a shot after it became a Hugo finalist for best series.  This is the first (but not the last) book I’ve read by Marie Brennan.
My Thoughts:

A Natural History of Dragons is set in a fantasy world, but within a nation that is a clear analogue of Victorian England, complete with severe restrictions on the lives and interests of women.  I’m not a big fan of Victorian stories, and I often find fictional sexism exhausting to read--particularly the kind of sexism that bars women from success in a male-dominated fields (physicist here, this is not new to me).  However, this is ameliorated by the fact that the story is told by the future, highly successful naturalist Lady Trent. Thus, we know from the beginning that she eventually wins, and society does change. When we see the barriers that are placed in front of her solely because of her gender, we can at least know for sure that she is going to overcome them.

Though the setting may not have won me over, the emphasis on science certainly did.  If you’ve read some of my other reviews, you may have noticed that I love stories about fictional scientific research.  In this novel, I somewhat predictably loved Isabella’s constant drive to learn about and study dragons. The study of live dragons only got underway fairly late in the novel, but her early life also involves the investigation of small dragon-like creatures called “sparklings”, among other things.  The status of the dragon subfield felt well thought-out, with some known facts, some misconceptions, and a wide area of unknowns. This novel covers only Isabella’s first expedition, so I’m sure there’s still plenty to learn about these creatures in the rest of the series.

Since this is a fictional memoir, it also has a strong focus on the personal details of Isabella’s life.  The story begins with her childhood, and we follow her as she grows into a young woman, struggling to find a way to follow her passion for science. I thought she was an excellent heroine. I enjoyed her intelligence and curiosity, and could empathize with her (sometimes reckless) enthusiasm for her field of study.  Her narration was smooth to read, and I liked her sense of humor. In general, I would have said that the tone of the book was light, and that there was a sense that everything would come out okay in the end. However, there is at least one serious sad twist, which caught me off guard. In any case, I have enjoyed this introduction to the life of Isabella, dragon naturalist.  
My Rating: 3.5/5

A Natural History of Dragons kicks off a five-book fictional memoir series about the life of Isabella, who will become the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist.  This book includes her childhood through her first dragon expedition, and describes the difficulties she has in following her interest in science in a restrictive Victorian-like society.  I am not a big fan of Victorian-style fiction and the frustrating sexism that entails, but I liked Isabella and I strongly identified with her curiosity and drive. I’ve already read the second book in the series (review coming soon), and I am definitely planning to read the rest!

No comments:

Post a Comment