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Natural History of Dragons Hardcover – 5 February 2013
Marie Brennan begins a thrilling new fantasy series in A Natural History of Dragons, combining adventure with the inquisitive spirit of the Victorian Age.
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.
"Saturated with the joy and urgency of discovery and scientific curiosity."―Publishers Weekly (starred review) on A Natural History of Dragons
An NPR Best Book of 2013
The Lady Trent Memoirs
1. A Natural History of Dragons
2. The Tropic of Serpents
3. Voyage of the Basilisk
4. In the Labyrinth of Drakes
5. Within the Sanctuary of Wings
- Publisher : Tor Books; 1st edition (5 February 2013)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 336 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0765331969
- ISBN-13 : 978-0765331960
- Dimensions : 15.09 x 2.95 x 21.74 cm
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Top reviews from Australia
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*** What to expect
Written in first person as a memoir (an old lady telling of her youthful adventures), Brennan's novel captures the feeling of Jane Austen with a judicious amount of dragons.
The story starts when the protagonist - Isabella - was a little child. She surveys the events that made her fall in love with dragons, and then her first expedition to learn more about them (in the name of science!). Events slowly progress, between her personal life, her desire to study, and the balance of actions between man and nature.
The books are set in a secondary world that is strongly reminiscent of 19th century Europe, with some interesting twists that are only hinted at.
*** What I liked
Lady Trent is a wonderful character. The memoir style highlights both her strong character (achieved over many decades), and her youthful enthusiasm. Brennan does a credible job of balancing an Austen-like writing style for modern fantasy readers.
The same with the dragons, an obvious big part of the story. Since this is a "natural history", Brennan balances both the study of them as wild animals (in the same sense that bears and wolves still plagued Europe) while keeping the sense of wonder. One certainly wishes they could stuy the dragons with Isabella!
*** What to be aware of
Though strongly reminiscent of our world's European culture, the story is set in a secondary world. There's no map, presumably because that wouldn't belong in a memoir but that makes it a bit disorienting. I know all too well about balancing secondary worlds with a deep historical-fantasy settings from my own writing, and I do appreciate the efforts - I just wish there was a bit more in the first book.
Isabella is a wonderful person, very engaging and her enthusiasm makes us want to read more. That said, do bear in mind that though she is spirited and does more than is normal for women in such a culture, there is the constant struggle in a misogynistic society. Also, some of the other characters seem to have less of an agency and depth than one might have wished for.
Lastly, this is a memoir - it is charming and lovely, with delicately written wit and very enjoyable overall - but don't expect thriller pace or high-action sequences with the dragons.
Highly recommended novel, a very strong start to a promising series. Brennan captures the sense of a woman in the 19th century striving to do science against a patriarchal establishment (and there were many examples from our own world for such!), the sense of time and culture (is not of place - see my note about maps), and the wonder of dragons.
Assaph Mehr, author of Murder In Absentia: Togas, Daggers, and Magic - for lovers of Ancient Rome, Murder Mysteries, and Urban Fantasy.
Top reviews from other countries
The conceit that this is a memoir of a famous person who the readers will all know, with the little asides about how previous biographies have missed out import parts, works well. We get to see Isabella grow up in a world where girls are expected to marry well, and where women are expected to be decorative. Isabella is passionate about dragons, and ill-suited to her world. Fortunately, she has chosen the right husband, and he and she embark on their dragon expedition together. Surly villagers, handsome smugglers, and political machinations all make dragon research more difficult, but are all, clearly, relevant to the mystery of the dragons’ strangely-changed behaviour.
What Isabella learns on her first expedition will stand her in good stead for what I am sure will be many further adventures.
The idea of having it as her memoir, for me while clever, was it's major weakness. Due to the character and it's time period, there was an understandable stiltedness to the narrative, but this was not something you could get over.
However, I am tickled enough to continue with the series one day, but not enough to do so straight away.
And enjoy it I did. The narrator, who tells her story as a memoir, has an instantly likeable voice. The story is set in a fictional Victorian-like world, perhaps a little bare-boned, but suitably fleshed out for the plot. Victorian mores rule; our indomitable narrator yearns to break free of social constraints, and realise her childhood dream: studying dragons.
So much care has been put into giving life to the dragons in this book, from their appearances to their behaviour to their physiology. There's no romanticism of them; many stories gift dragons with an intelligence comparable to humans, but here they are presented much more as animal, something I found refreshingly different.
The Victorian-style setting really does enhance the story, enriching the narrator's witty voice and providing the sense of a world teetering on the cusp of industrialisation, something that will surely come into conflict with the existence of the dragons (indeed, in the story, they are already said to have declined or be declining in many parts of the world). The book even manages to make itself relevant to our own real, contemporary world - at one point, the narrator defends herself and her fellow researchers for shooting a dragon for the purposes of scientific study, and argues how hypocritical her countrymen are for decrying the killing of animals abroad which at home they would not hesitate to kill for their own comfort or safety.
The plot is, probably, the weakest component of the book, if only because the others are so strong. This is one of those stories which is as much about the characters as the dragons, meaning that there were not quite enough dragons for me. The focus in the latter half of the book was almost a murder mystery, with a wholly human core. But the ending was sufficiently tied up, and holds plenty of promise for a sequel, which I expect the author (the real-life one) to produce!
It would be a crime to review this book without mentioning the drawings. There are a number of them interspersed through the book, most of them of dragons. They're wonderful to look at, and only enhance the reader's experience.
What I would caution is that Brennan does couch the language in an approximation of 19th century prose – however, it is only an approximation. There is nothing like the pages of intense description or long, involved passages of exposition you’d find in a novel written by Dickens or Mrs Gaskell. Brennan takes the story forward in the form of a memoir written by Lady Trent as an elderly lady about the exploits that made her famous, which moves along at a fair clip.
I was utterly beguiled. This is a wonderful conceit brilliantly pulled off by Brennan. The plot rapidly corkscrews away in all sorts of directions I hadn’t anticipated and there is a really shocking outcome that left me winded at the ending, while leaving me keen to learn more.
I’m so glad Himself has bought the next three books in the series – and the great news for fans of this accomplished series is that the fifth and final book, Within the Sanctuary of Wings is due out in February 2017. I’m very much looking forward to reading it – which also gives me an excellent excuse to tuck into the other three in the meantime. Happy Christmas me – and many, many thanks to Kivaria for her recommendation. She is spot on – this is one of my outstanding reads of the year.