Monday, August 12, 2013

Book Review: A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

A Natural History of Dragons is a fantasy novel by Marie Brennan, author of fantasy novels including Doppelganger and the Onyx Court series.

It takes the form of a memoir written by its main character Isabella, Lady Trent, prominent naturalist and the world's foremost scientific authority on dragons. Born into an aristocratic family in Scirland and consumed from an early age by an interest in science thought unbecoming of a Scirland woman, Lady Trent recounts the development of her youthful fascination with dragons, her struggles with the expectations placed on a woman of her class, and her first adventure abroad to the distant land of Vystrana on a scientific expedition with her husband and his companions.

However, what starts as simply an attempt to study the local wildlife quickly becomes more dangerous than expected. The local dragons have recently become much more violent and aggressive towards humans, for reasons unknown. In the small village

Strange phenomenon begin to terrorize the small village the expedition is using as their base begins to experience strange, frightening phenomena after Lady Trent trespasses on nearby ruins left by a long-dead civilization that worshiped dragons as gods. Bandits and smugglers lurk in the countryside, while the local lord has started keeping strange company and taking an interest in their activities

I liked A Natural History of Dragons. It's very entertainingly written, sufficiently so that it's fun to read even when there's a lull in the story. The plot kept my interest, and the I found the characters engaging and enjoyable to spend time with. The central premise, dragons that are natural rather than supernatural creatures been studied scientifically, is intriguing and carried out very well,  and the dragons themselves are interesting and well-realized.

The book is written in the style of a 19th-century memoir, so the narration is much more of a “character” in its own right than is typical of most fantasy books, and this works very much to the story's advantage. Lady Trent's narration is quite entertaining, and hearing the story from her perspective decades after the fact makes the younger Lady Trent the story is about- an extremely sheltered, inexperienced aristocrat- much more interesting. It also helps with exposition, since the memoir format makes it feel much more natural for the narrator to occasionally stop and directly explain some bit of backstory or setting, and Lady Trent's wry authorial voice prevents it from feeling like a dry infodump.

The setting is basically 19th-century Europe with different names and geography (and dragons, obviously), and it's not particularly interesting in itself, but it's well-described and works for the story being told. “Fantasy” elements are fairly minimal (aside, presumably, from a few differences in the way chemistry works), which initially seems odd for a book about dragons but actually fits the premise quite well. Lady Trent and company ares natural historians of the early Industrial era, studying an exotic species using the same methods their colleagues would use to study any animal; it would change the whole atmosphere of the book if dragons didn't obey the same natural laws as any other animal, or “It's magic” was a viable explanation for strange phenomena. 

I'd recommend A Natural History of Dragons for anyone interested in unusual takes on classic fantasy tropes, as well as fans of quasi-Victorian settings or narrative styles. People who are (as I am) primarily fans of science fiction rather than fantasy may also enjoy it for its approach to the story. It's a lot of fun.

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