by Marie Brennan
Series: The Memoirs of Lady Trent #1
Published on February 5, 2013 by Tor
Genres: Adult, Fantasy
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.
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“Either she’s birdbrained and you failed to make the situation clear to her — in which case she’ll be entirely your problem; I wash my hands of her — or she knows precisely what she’s letting herself in for.”
Finally! A book about the science of dragons, not just how terrifying or powerful they are. As someone studying biology for a career, I fully appreciated the straightforward and analytical voice of this book. Did I expect it? Not in the least, and it did take a couple chapters to really get into it, but Brennan has here an entertaining and comedic study of those beasts fantasy novels love to talk about.
The biggest aspect of this novel is the character voice. Written in first person, it details the younger years of Lady Trent, introduced as Isabella — a young girl with a fascination with dragons. Inspired by the in-book title A Natural History of Dragons by Sir Richard Edgeworth, Isabella dives into the science behind dragons, beginning with the sparkling Greenie (a memento from her childhood she touches upon throughout). Her voice is that of an older woman reflecting on her life (this being only a portion of it). Often she comments on the lack of knowledge at the time of her first expedition compared to now, indicating a whole other history that isn’t touched on in the first book.
As a narrator, Lady Trent is sarcastic and witty. As a character, Isabella was annoying at times. Her reflection on her younger self meant the repetition of concepts such as her overcoming the traditional woman’s role in society to become a scholar and naturalist. This left the text stagnant and, initially, I put this book aside in favor of other titles. It wasn’t until I picked it up again that I looked past these repetitions to the story beneath. For there was a story, seen through the narrative of a scientist.
I know I’m not the only one with a science background but I definitely believe that my love of science — specifically biology — paired with a love of all things fantastical — especially dragons — gave me an interesting perspective on this story. While dry at times, the narrative is much more intriguing and captivating than the scientific journals haunting my desk during the school year. That is brought science into literature that was easier to stomach improved my opinion on the whole novel.
Where A Natural History of Dragons (the actual title by Brennan, that is, not the one within the book) is strong on its science, it lacks with characters. There’s plenty of comedic moments but they’re just that. Funny. No real connection past that. I felt nothing toward Isabella, her husband Jacob (whose fate I won’t spoil, but left me feeling as little emotion as Isabella displays), or any of the supporting characters. There’s so much distance between the voice of Lady Trent and the actual events detailed in this first part of her “memoir” that I never developed a good connection with the characters.
But I totally would’ve wanted to be Isabella during her expedition, going out to study dragons.
As a whole, I enjoyed A Natural History of Dragons. It’s not for readers looking for strong characters and a whirlwind adventure, but Lady Trent is a very interesting narrator with plenty of humor to keep you going. For my like-minded science folk out there, give it a try!