A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

I’ve not been writing a whole lot of reviews outside LibraryThing Early Reviews lately and I loved this book series so much I figured it was a good time to write a non-LT review. I’m going to try to do equal amounts each month (so if I get two books from LTER, then two other reviews, too) from now on, but it all depends on how busy I am! I’ve had a lot going on and life always seems to be excellently good at getting busier.

So, onto the first book of the Lady Trent memoirs. I picked up this book for a multitude of reasons. Dragons, of course, were very high on the list of reasons, as basically NOTHING can match my love for dragons. The appeal of a female scientist main character held no small motivation for reading, as well. Also high on the list for reasons to read, this book was recommended by my best friend and an author I highly respect both gave high praise to the series. I’d been meaning to read it (my TBR is almost 900 books and counting), but those two recommendations were finally what pushed me over the edge. And let me tell you: the fall was worth EVERY SECOND.

Lady Isabella Trent is a PHENOMENAL woman of great sense and curiosity. I love that these books are written as memoirs from an older age, rather than journals written at the time. This allows for a good deal of perspective, delightful world building outside the events of the books (I LONG for some of the other works referenced by the narrator and would gladly pay Marie Brennan a comfortable wage to write them, had I the means), and simply GLORIOUS parentheticals peppered throughout the manuscript. And when I say glorious, I mean GLOR.I.OUS. Zounds, but Brennan can write a parenthetical. The narrative voice is business-like, practical, and descriptive without being overly embellished. I have rarely had such a lovely time in the head of a character. I think this is because the narrator spends so very little time on regrets, angst, or even celebration. She acknowledges them when appropriate, but the point of these memoirs are, ultimately, a true account of a life, not an emotional or needlessly nostalgic narrative, certainly never a maudlin one. I LOVE it.

The other characters are, of course, perceived through the lens of Isabella’s perspective, so that does limit our concept of them, but that does not prevent us from seeing growth. Often, the growth is in Isabella’s perception of the characters, which I find very true to life. She starts out seeing many characters less than complexly, and they all occur to her as more complicated than she initially assumes at different paces. I like that flawed, first-person perspective. Two particular relationships I enjoyed seeing come to a certain equilibrium were those of Lady Trent and Tom Wilker and Lady Trent and the local lady who serves as her handmaid on the expedition. The relationship between Isabella and her husband is especially tender and a joy to watch develop from a marriage of social respectability to one of friendship, love, and deep respect.

The Lady Trent memoirs are what the author describes as a 1.5 alternate history – that is to say, the names of countries and political relationships are distinct from our world, but the world does absolutely have analogs in this world. I’ll admit, that took some getting used to, as I kept having “ah-ha!” moments when I would make a connection. Perhaps more distracting were the times I would look at a word or a cultural system and think, “Really? Does the author think another world would have developed a nearly identical system/name?” It took me some time to accept the world for what it was: a close-but-not-quite sibling to ours.

I was delighted to discover the predominant religion in this book to be more like Judaism than Christianity. It was refreshing to see a difference in narrative. So often, fictional religions are similar to Christianity or the Greek pantheon – I like the change. I was a bit disappointed we didn’t see more of the religion, but as none of the main characters were particularly religious, it didn’t really suit the narrative. Perhaps that is another flaw I see in the book: the agnostic, culturally religious, and non-religious are all well represented, but the only truly religious characters are less present, or dismissed with impatience by the main characters who have little time for faith. I feel as if that is somewhere where the author could grow in future books.

I found the pacing of the plot very . . . efficient, I think is the best word for it. This first book covers a young woman’s scientific awakening, her marriage, and her first expedition. That is a LOT of ground to cover. Thankfully, Lady Trent’s no nonsense narration deals with this very neatly: what was important in the formative years, courtship, and early marriage were covered just enough to give a sense of events without dawdling. However, this did make the jump from overviews and summaries to a detailed (though just as efficient and practical) account of the expedition a little less than smooth.

As for the dragons, well, I want more of them. I’m used to the sentient dragons of fantasy, and these dragons were solely animals. That being said, the science Brennan spent the book setting up was absolutely fascinating. I am VERY excited to see how it develops. The references to the changes in scientific and cultural thought about dragons in the time since the events of the book and the time of its writing are tantalizing without being too distracting. The distraction that does come is one of anticipation, not frustration (although one might argue anticipation is an exercise in a certain, almost pleasurable, frustration). Specifically, I am DYING to hear about the taxonomic changes.

Because of said scientific observations and bases of the manuscript, I do have a bit of trouble classifying it as fantasy (which most would assume would be the classification for a book about dragons). I finally settled on Speculative Fiction as my classification, which I generally use when there’s simply too much science and too much fantasy for a book to be one or the other, or when dealing with alternate futures and histories. All of those seemed to be present in this book. Your mileage may vary, but do not go into this book expecting what is generally expected of a fantasy about dragons. This is a splendidly different sort of take.

Ultimately, I was more than pleased with this series debut. In fact, I was positively tickled. I rushed out to buy the next two books and have happily devoured them since. I highly recommend this series to a budding scientist with an active imagination.

A (amazing series launch, truly distinct narrative voice, glorious parentheticals, enjoyable main character, side characters well-developed, science of dragons fascinaating; somewhat distracting world similarities and differences, rough transition from broad overview to detailed accounts)

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