A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent
A long time ago in a lifetime far away, I enjoyed reading novels actually written in the Victorian era. The people, the culture, the whole world was different and fascinating. And then I got older and discovered social orders, class consciousness, and how most of the people living in those times and in those places struggled just to live and how the rich held them down in all sorts of ways. I began to not enjoy the stories as much as I had and moved on to other things, primarily science fiction and horror. A friend recently mentioned getting this book, the first in a series and I read the first few pages and decided to try it myself, with mixed results.
Isabella Hendemore was a typical Scirlandian girl until she discovered a dead dragon in the garden. She learned from the cook how to preserve the fragile body, and how utterly fascinating the natural world is to observe and explore. After stealing her brother’s knife to dissect a dead bird and getting in a lot of trouble for ruining a dress (and of course all the blood and guts and completely reprehensible sin of curiosity, which girls were not allowed), she became even more obsessed. She read everything in her benevolent father’s large library, had many adventures over the years, and became extremely famous as the world’s dragon expert. She wrote memoirs as an old woman so as to cut down on the number of written requests for stories about her exploits. This volume is the story of her early life, and her first forays into the world of dragons, especially in the mountainous and backward Vystrana region of Anthiope.
The first thing you notice, of course, is that it’s a made up world (that very much resembles Victorian England and Europe). The next is how often, in the Victorian style, she inserts off the cuff remarks in sometimes extended parentheticals like this one:
“(I would say my playing suffered from the distraction, but it is difficult for something so dire to grow worse. Although I appreciate music, to this day I could not carry a tune if you tied it around my wrist for safekeeping.) ”
You will also notice that author Marie Brennan had a way with Victorian pastiche, and never breaks character throughout the novel. There are many illustrations and each chapter headings bullet points the events of that chapter in a Victorian style. She also takes care to continuously describe and use in the plot a lot of the more painful, historically accurate cultural mores of that time, like considering any peasant of a neighboring poor country to be not only uncouth and ignorant but actually childlike no matter what their age and standing in the community. Or having to beg your husband to go with him as he takes a year to go naturalizing in said backward region. Some things never change, I suppose.
I love how these two paragraphs, from her first arrival in the tiny peasant village of Drustanev, sum up a lot of what was good about the book (the breezy Victorian pastiche and humor) and what was annoying (the cultural pitfalls):
“I was lucky enough to find one of the plain, sturdy dresses I had commissioned before leaving Scirland, with buttons I could reach on my own. Just as I finished with the last of them, the door creaked open, and the young woman from the night before poked her head
She was tall and of that build we so politely call ‘strapping’ and applaud when found in peasant folk, with strong features and a wealth of dark hair. She also, at that moment, had an alarmed expression, apparently provoked by the sight of me dressing myself without aid.
Oh, the humanity! Doing your own buttons! Okay, but Isabella is a genius and headstrong (what we would today refer to as “brave”), and even though she often refers to her much younger self in all manner of derogatory terms (like idiot), It’s a lot of fun following her on her exploits.
On the plus side, the female lead gives the novel a nice, modern feel, and gives the protagonist more and varied situations to overcome. I would love to see Emily Blunt play this character but oh well. The prose is solidly Victorian in feel, to the point that I quickly began reading with an internal English accent, but it’s still modern enough for today’s reader to have little problem with. There are more than a couple of action sequences in the course of the story and they are all very well done. There is a solid mystery related in a rather methodical pace, and the scientific method is described in all its Victorian crudity. I was never big on Travel Writing, which was a huge thing back then, but I think if you like that kind of thing you’ll like this.
The never ending reminder of how things were culturally back then is the biggest pitfall for me. YMMV.
I won’t say don’t read this book, as I mostly enjoyed it for the reasons stated above. You may have absolutely no problems returning to the nostalgic times when everyone but white males of a certain social standing were treated like crud, but it was a large drawback for me. I will probably at one point try the next two books in the series, The Tropic of Serpents and Voyage of the Basilisk, because I am curious about Isabella’s continuing adventures and I enjoyed Brennan’s writing style.
- Swan Tower – Marie Brennan Official Website
- A Natural History of Dragons – on Swan Tower, Official Author Site
CFR: In Addition: When I received Mildred’s review in my inbox I had to do a double-take. Did I know this book? More importantly, is that the author I know and consider a friend? Why yes it is!! So I was happy that Mildred was reviewing.
I met Marie, aka Brynn, during a LARP called Embracing the Muses (EtM). (Made a page about it here.) Marie and I had many wonderful conversations in and out of character and I enjoyed her friendship very much. Very smart, talented, and all around fun person. When she left my hometown, I was sad.
I loved running to the bookstore to buy her first book Midnight Never Come. I devoured it and all the other books in that series. I also devoured Lady Trent’s efforts to understand dragons. I saw the struggles Lady Trent dealt with – sexism – very well handled as the reader know it was bad. I think it is good to remember that.
I was also thrilled to find that there are more books in the series. Off I go to read.
Well done, Marie!
In short, dear reader, thanks to these two authors, you’ve got a lot of good reading ahead of you.