A Natural History of Dragons: Marie Brennan

★★★★

A Memoir by Lady Trent: Book I

Authors have tackled dragons in many ways over the years: Tolkien’s shrewd, gold-hoarding Smaug; Anne McCaffrey’s magnificent bond-beasts; and, more recently, Naomi Novik’s intelligent and well-meaning Temeraire. With the first of Marie Brennan’s delightful fantasy novels, I’ve been introduced to another take on the subject, in which dragons are just another breed of fauna to be studied – albeit long-clawed and lethal – a challenge taken on by the plucky, well-born bluestocking naturalist, Isabella Camherst.

Told in Isabella’s voice, the language of the novel is perfectly pitched to suggest a broadly Victorian setting, in which young gentlewomen certainly do not practice dissection, read scientific books about dragons or get themselves into awkward situations with wild wolf-drakes. Looking back from her later years – in which she has become a well-known dragon naturalist – Isabella remembers her stubborn independence as a young girl and the books, pilfered from her father’s library, which helped to create her obsession with dragons. Beginning with the tiny Sparklings which live wild in the woods, her interest rapidly grows in scale until, as a young woman, she finds herself in the royal menagerie with her brother. Here she meets an eligible young man called Jacob Camherst, who is not only a catch on the marriage-mart but, more importantly, also interested in dragons.

It is, if not love, then at least fellow-feeling at first sight; and love follows. Isabella’s marriage blesses her with a husband willing to indulge her decidedly unconventional interests. Taking advantage of this, she manages to inveigle their way onto an expedition led by the explorer-naturalist Lord Hilford, to the mountains of distant Vystrana. Here Isabella will have her first encounter with true dragons, in a land of forests, chasms, smugglers, corrupt boyars, suspicious villagers and more intellectual satisfaction than she has ever known before. But it will all come at a tragic price…

If you like the Temeraire novels, I’m sure you’d also enjoy Brennan’s Natural History. Her alternate world has imagined countries, but is generally mappable onto our own, in that I imagine Isabella’s native Scirland to be England and Vystrana to be Romania or Russia. The mores and values are very much those of the 19th century and you can well imagine Isabella as a lady traveller, expected to travel with parasol and sketchbook and vapours, but actually desperate to climb into caves and observe at close hand. Throughout the book, she challenges the conventional constraints for her sex in a way that makes her immediately relatable: ‘I wanted to stretch the wings of my mind and see how far I could fly‘. Illustrated with occasional plates from Isabella’s sketchbooks (actually drawn by Todd Lockwood), this is a lovely tongue-in-cheek response to the opinionated books actually produced by Victorian lady travellers (like the real Idle Woman, though her books were more about quaint Italian customs and less about dragons).

There are now several more books in Brennan’s series – I’m a latecomer to Isabella’s adventures – and so I look forward to exploring more of her world at her side, finding out more about dragons, and discovering exactly how she becomes Lady Trent. Highly recommended for a bit of escapism. I leave you with the words of Isabella herself:

Be warned, then: the collected volumes of this series will contain frozen mountains, foetid swamps, hostile foreigners, hostile fellow countrymen, the occasional hostile family member, bad decisions, misaventures in orienteering, disease of an unromantic sort, and a plentiude of mud. You 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. If my humble words convey even a fraction of that wonder, I will rest content.

Attagirl!

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