Book #269: A Natural History of Dragons Review

4 Star Ratings

 

I love dragons.

I mean, I don’t love love dragons.  Some people out there are like…love dragons an inordinate amount.  (In case I’m not being obvious enough, I’m talking about dragon erotica.  Don’t worry—you can click that link.  It just takes you to Goodreads.)

But I’m an avid fantasy reader, and I cut my teeth on Anne McCaffery’s Dragonriders of Pern series.  It doesn’t hurt that my favorite video games are also dragon-heavy.  Ahem.  SKYRIM.  

So when I saw the adorable dragon on the cover of Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons, I knew I’d read it eventually.  Full disclosure: I absolutely judge books by their covers.  I have read many a bad book because the cover is gorgeous, and I’m sure I’ve skipped some fabulous reads because of janky cover art.  I am woman enough to admit that I like pretty things.

Anyway, back to the book.  This book is actually a fictional memoir, written by Lady Isabella Trent in her twilight years about her early escapades.  She recounts her early fascination with dragons, which ostracizes her from high society even as it sets her life course.  She marries another dragon enthusiast, Jacob Camhurst, and wangles* herself into an expedition to Drustanev to study them.  When she and her party arrive, they learn that the dragons have started attacking townspeople, and Isabella commits herself to unravelling the mystery.

Now, on to the review!

 

The Good

There is a lot to like about Brennan’s book.  Perhaps most obviously, it’s written with books like Jane Eyre in mind.  Not only is the worldbuilding clearly influenced by Victorian England, the book itself is written in first person, which Charles Dickens made wildly popular during the 19th century. Brennan embraces this heritage, and she writes a novel that might as well have its place alongside David Copperfield and Great Expectations, if those books had…well…dragons.  (Honestly, they’d be a little better if they did!)

Brennan’s world leaps off of the page, and she manages to construct it without huge amounts of expository discussion.  It helps that we’re getting the story in retrospect; A Natural History of Dragons is Lady Isabella Trent’s memoir.  She’s able to fill in details without sounding dull and overdone precisely because she’s remembering them.  If you think about it, that makes sense.  For example, when you make a new friend and want to tell them about something that happened in high school, you have to explain who people are, what they were like, and what you were like back then, right?  Isabella does the same thing, and she does it marvelously.

The whole book relies on you liking Isabella, so it helps that she is A Very Sassy Woman.  She’s a trailblazer in the face of stale cultural rules about what women can and can’t do, and she grabs life by the horns.  Like I said on Goodreads, Isabella can be summed up like this:

Lady Isabella = Jane Eyre the book – Jane Eyre the character + Amelia Peabody (from Elizabeth Peters’ books) + awesome dragons

And really, this is a book about Isabella more than it is about dragons.  It’s about a whip-smart woman living in a man’s world, struggling to prove herself while at the same time following her passion for science and nature.  She experiences highs and lows, and because she is so relatable, you’re happy to ride that roller-coaster with her.

Beyond that, the plot is inventive and interesting, too.  Brennan writes a book that is part fantasy, part historical fiction, part textbook, and part mystery, and all the bits and baubles blend together seamlessly.  Isabella’s travels to study dragons result in both murder and mayhem, and it’s up to her to unravel the mystery.  I know this plot is fairly stale, but it works here, and I couldn’t wait to figure out the whodunnit.

 

The Bad

So, the pacing of this book isn’t great.  We spend a lot of time sitting around with Isabella negotiating, talking, and otherwise waxing philosophical about dragons.  That’s not to say there isn’t action in this book–there is.  It’s just spaced out in a way where it’s easy to find yourself spacing out and getting bored.  This happens partly because Brennan does a superb job mimicking the ebbs and flows of a Victorian novel, but this book lacks the minutae that make Jane Eyre captivating.  So that’s a bit of a problem.

The other issue here are the secondary characters.  Whereas Isabella, her husband Jacob, and her lady’s maid, Dagmira, and well-rounded and complex characters, the rest of the cast suffers.  The other residents of Drustanev come across as (gasp!) backwards natives of a foreign land, which fits the Victorian elements of the novel but is otherwise slightly offensive.  I mean, this book was published in 2014.  Brennan is already writing a book that’s effectively about a dragon-infested 19th century England.  She could have at least rewritten history to be less…I don’t know…racist.

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The other Englishmen don’t fare as well, either.  Hilford, the sponsor of the trip, comes across as the stereotypical benevolent benefactor, and Mr. Wilcox is definitely That-Guy-Who-Can’t-Handle-Strong-Women-In-Ye-Olden-Times.  Thankfully Isabella carries the book, but the largely fairly weak supporting cast was a let-down.

 

The Ugly

Again, I actually quite liked this book, so I don’t have much to add here.  My first major beef with the book comes from my personal taste.  I don’t like books that introduce children early on in the series.  Again, my own preferences are showing here: it’s perfectly reasonable for Isabella to have a baby at 20, especially given the culture of Skirland.  It’s just…I like my characters to live a little before having a family.

My second major gripe is a major spoiler, so be forewarned.  The way Isabella handles Jacob’s death plays as flat for me.  She’s just lost the man who gave her freedom that the rest of society would deny her, and she basically refuses to show readers her grief.  Or, maybe more accurately, her rational stoicism makes the scene less moving, which is unfortunate since Isabella did clearly love Jacob.  Despite that, I’m pretty sure I was more heartbroken about Jacob’s passing than Isabella.

 


 

So, having said all of that, I quite liked this book and have the rest on my (ever-growing) “to read” list.

Read A Natural History of Dragons if:

You are a science-minded person who likes methodical plot and pacing

Love Spunky Heroines Of Yore and especially loves English Spunky Heroines of Yore

Dig Victorian books or Victoriana

Skip A Natural History of Dragons if: 

You prefer fast-paced plots with lots of actions

Would rather read about a) slaying dragons, b) riding dragons, or c) dragons slaying people

Don’t care for alt-history fantasy books

 

Even More Disclosure: I listened to this book as an audiobook.  If you want my take on listening to a book versus reading one, feel free to check out my FAQs.

*Okay, so apparently I’ve been using “wrangles” wrong forever.  It’s actually wangles, which I never would have known if not for Downton Abbey.

Wangles: (verb) obtain (something that is desired) by persuading others to comply or by manipulating events



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