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)

What I’m Backing: Happy Dragons! by Nina Bolen

A note: This was supposed to post on Tuesday, but was delayed for the write-up on a project that a) was ending sooner and b) I felt more strongly about. If you see any references that seem out of continuity, that’s why. Thanks for being patient with me.

Hey there, it’s Wednesday, best day of the week! The timing’s great because, I’m not going to lie, this project makes me irrationally happy. This will be the last “What I’m Backing” post for a couple weeks, and while I might not have saved the best for last, I sure did save the CUTEST!

Today’s feature is Happy Dragons! Whimsical Dragon Sculptures by Nina Bolen. Basic stats* below:

  • Goal: $1,000
  • Funding Status: fully funded; all ten stretch goals hit
  • Total Backers: 120+
  • Interesting Stretch Goals: YES!
  • When Did I Jump In: About halfway through, well after funding.

Okay, I feel awful about this, but the reason I’m backing this can be boiled down to one word:

DRAGONS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

It’s really that simple.

No. Really.

Really really.

Okay, I’ll stop now.**

I grew up on Anne McCaffrey, Jane Yolen, The Jewel Kingdom books, Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher, and more. I wrote dragon stories. Then I read as many as I could of the amazing books with dragons in them as an adult. I was, am, and will be a dragon freak. I could talk about the adorable concept art. I could talk about the birthstone dragons stretch goal (and how I am SO SAD I am not a March baby and how I desperately hope July’s pose is as cute). I could talk about the stretch goal we’ve yet to reach being full of more squee-causing cuteness and fun features. I could talk about I could talk about the mock-ups looking so good. I could go on at length about how this rings all my nerdy bells and how it’s my first time backing an art project.

But really, mentioning them is enough because, while these are all really good parts of the campaign, the reason I threw money at this campaign was because it was DRAGONS. I am an unabashed dragon lover. To the point that, when it looked like our original cake topper was destroyed (thankfully not, as it is a family heirloom), my fiancé and I looked at several custom dragon bride and groom sculpture options. Dragons are AWESOME and I cannot WAIT to get my Happy Dragon.

*As of posting 9/24 at 12:00 Mountain Time.

**THERE WERE SO MANY MORE, TOO.

[><] & [::]

College for kids.

I know, I know, it happened again.  I read a book and didn’t review it on time.  The good news is, I read it on time.  The better news is, I haven’t been avoiding the book because I don’t like it.  I just felt very anti-internets last weeks and there you have it: no blog.

The Fire Within by Chris D’Lacey is a fun book.  One of the reasons it is so very fun is that it’s targeted at ten and eleven year-old boys, but the main character is a college aged.  The only ten year-old is a girl.   It’s absolutely fantastic.

It was several years ago that The Fire Within caught my eye.  It couldn’t have been too long after the third book came out.  I don’t think the second book was even in paperback in the US yet (the author is British and let me tell you it takes ten kinds of forever for his books to get over here–grumpgrumpgrump).  I don’t know why this is important to tell you, but it is.  I read the first book and was impressed by the fact that the author made the main character twice the age as the target audience and at such a different stage of life than you’d expect.  Also, when I went on to the second and third books there were some seriously existential discussions in the text.  Of course, this bumped up the target age to thirteen or fourteen (writing was still at a ten to eleven level, but comprehension is what bumped it), but I appreciated that the author wasn’t afraid to treat his readers as intelligent beings.  Some eleven year-olds will be able to follow those discussions and that makes this a great series to consider.  I very much enjoy series that sit on the cusp of an age group.  It does make it difficult to recommend in some ways (well, the writing is a bit young for you but the content is just right vs the writing is right up your alley, but the content might be a bit over your head), but it also gives a chance for a reader to stretch or relax.  These are great books to have around!

I took it in an attempt to find a different sort of dragon book.  I was tired of the same old Anne McCaffrey books (though I love them) and Christopher Paolini gets boring fast.  I had read the Dragon’s Milk series half a dozen times (has anyone else read those?) and as sweet as the My Father’s Dragon series is, it’s not really very dragony.  It was time for something new.  Something different.  The Fire Within is certainly that.

Dragons are not a given in The Fire Within.  They appear to be statues created by the main character’s landlord, Liz.  Her eccentricity, if you will.  David, the college kid/main character, finds it strange, but charming.  He finds Liz’s squirrel-obsessed daughter, Lucy, much more interesting, and less of a mystery.  A friendship that Liz half-approves of, half-disapproves buds between the two “kids.”  It’s pretty adorable.

When I first read this book, I was exactly what the target audience wasn’t supposed to be: I was a twenty year-old female.  It was fun being David’s age and reading the book through the age of his eyes, but with many of Lucy’s emotions.  Reading the book this time around, I felt a lot more like Liz.  David and Lucy get into the most ridiculous shenanigans caused in part by her impatience, his too-rational nature, and an unhealthy desire for secrecy.  Bringing in Liz on everything would have been a much better idea, but I suppose that’s how everyone feels about their parents at one point or another.  And who wants to ask their landlord for help?  I certainly never did!

So, I suppose one of the things I like best is that this book can reach out to so many: boys, girls, young, old, somewhere in between.  It’s not so much about dragons this first time around, but it is enough about dragons to bring the reader back for the next book, which really jumps into the created dragon lore that D’Lacey works so hard on.  I’m very impressed with it, even if I don’t always love it.  It can get pretty out there some days.  And choosing a connection between bears and dragons has–so far as I can find–no mythological precedent.  It’s a bit radical for this stodgy mythologist, but it’s good.  I’ll give him that.

So far as the prose goes, I have to give a hats off to the editor who made this book America-ready!  THANK YOU for not taking out the colloquial British phrases!  I love it that those stayed in.  Children need to get used to deciphering meaning through context and these words are fun to do that with!  “Wuzzled off” is a wonderful phrase for dying.  Wish there was something so good on this side of the Pond.  Props to D’Lacey, too, for using language easy enough to determine via context so that the editor felt he COULD leave it alone.

One of my favorite scenes, stylistically, was one of dragon scenes (no surprise there).  It was the first time David actually communed with his dragon, Gadzooks.  Liz makes special dragons for certain people and Gadzooks was what occurred to her for David.  Gadzooks is a writing dragon (as if there were any doubt I’d like this book, this sealed it).  David finally suspends disbelief and communicates with Gadzooks in that special place in his heart and mind where Gadzooks is not only real, but alive:

Lucy, undeterred, had one last option.  “Can Gadzooks have a try [naming the squirrel]?”

“Pardon?” said David.

“Ask him,” said Lucy.

“How?” said the tenant, looking bemused.

Lucy paddled her feet. “Dream it,” she breathed.

What?” said David.

“Mom, make him do it.”

“I’m cooking sausages, Lucy.”

“Oh, Mom.  Please.”

“Do what?” said David.

Lucy threw herself into the chair beside him. “It’s Mom’s special way of telling stories.  You have to join in and tell what you see.  Then the story really comes alive.  Things happen, things you don’t expect.  Oh, Mom, make him do it.”

Liz sighed and gave in: “David, close your eyes and picture Gadzooks.”

He looked at her askance.  “You’re not serious?”

“I thirty seconds, your dinner will be burned.”

“That’s serious,” said David.  He closed his eyes.  “OK.  He’s on his windowsill, looking out over the garden.  I think he’s wondering if it’s going to rain.”

“No,” said Liz, “he’s biting his pencil, deep in thought, trying hard to thing of a name for you squirrel.  Dream it, David.”

David rocked in his chair and let his mind float. “He flipped a page of his notepad over.”

“Hhh!” gasped Lucy.  “It’s working, Mom!”

“Shush,” went Liz.

“He’s writing something.”

“What?” gasped Lucy, too excited to be shushed.  David let his imagination flow.  To his amazement, he watched Gadzooks take his pencil from his jaws and hurriedly scribble down a name on his pad.

SNIGGER

David’s eyebrows twitched in surprise. Liz prodded a sausage or two with a for.  Lucy bit a fingernail.  Bonnington yawned.  The whole Pennykettle household waited for an answer.

“Snigger,” David whispered.

From somewhere came a gentle hrring noise.

David’s dark blue eyes blinked open. “Yes,” he said, “his name is Snigger.”

I wish you could see what the publishing company did with the font for Gadzooks’ writing.  Even visually that scene was compelling.  I love how that was a step-by-step journey into the part of David that was the writer, the part he had been refusing to acknowledge until now.  Yes, Gadzooks is alive in this book, but he is alive because of the creative part of David that David had nearly killed with over rationalization.

Please don’t think I’m one of those crazy “art over science” people.  I advocate balance.  I think that the science and the arts have to work in tandem and one of the things I respect so much about D’Lacey is that he manages to split that balance so very well in this and his other books.  You don’t have to give up one to have the other.

This book is not what I’d call typical YA lit.  It takes a special kid for me to recommend it.  I like it because it pushes the boundaries of expectations.  These books treat kids intelligently, and I am a big fan of that.  I hope to do so well in my ventures into YA lit.

Why this book was challenging for me:

  • Even upon second (or third) reading, it goes way against my YA expectations.
  • There are so many different perspectives in the novel to see it from.
  • It’s designed to make you ask questions and think, which I still do second (or third) time around.
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