With the fifth and final installment of Marie Brennan’s “Memoirs of Lady Trent” series, Within the Sanctuary of Wings, set to release later this month, I thought I’d revisit the book that started it all off: A Natural History of Dragons. In it, Ms. Brennan has spun a tale both familiar and fantastic, and gives us a unique heroine with a quick wit, a keen mind, and a few failings to keep her honest, yet still constrained by her time and the limits of the society in which she lives. It’s a charming work, wonderfully consistent in voice, and quite captivating in tone and substance.
This first book (as with all the books in the series) is a delightful blend of Victoriana, fantasy and archaic science. Told as the memoir of renowned natural historian Lady Trent, in A Natural History of Dragons we are introduced to a young Isabella as she attempts bring legitimacy to the study of dragons, a field that is more legend and folk tale than science.
Normally the pathway to scientific scholarship would be closed to even highbred young ladies such as Isabella, but an insatiable curiosity, a determined will, five brothers and an indulgent set of parents combine to give her enough knowledge to keep her interest in dragons piqued. Even while attempting to embrace propriety and feminine etiquette, she is unable to keep her interest in natural history from asserting itself; luckily, this attracts the attention of dashing, young gentleman Jacob Camherst, and soon Isabella is married to not only someone who shares her interests, but one she can count as a friend.
Not long into the marriage, the newlyweds finagle their way into an expedition with famed dragon researcher Lord Hilford, and are off to the mountains of Vystrana where they hope to observe rock-wyrms in their native habitat. Many adventures ensue, not just with dragons, but also with political intrigue, hidden treasures, misunderstandings, machinations and mysteries – even smugglers!
Having the book presented as a memoir allows Ms. Brennan to let the story take center stage, with just the right amount of “technical” discussion to keep us focused on a marvelous sense of discovery. After all, Lady Trent is writing for the general public! (Illustrations by Todd Lockwood add to the authentic feel of the book, documenting the expedition’s adventures.) But there is also an element of wonderful peevishness to the character of young, naive, privileged and headstrong Isabella, as we see her interacting with a rustic community who does not stand on convention, but rather tradition and custom. It makes for a marvelous bit of tension (and some subtle humor) without a lot of inserted drama.
And then, there are the dragons. Never before have I read a book where the dragons are so believable. These are not magical beings spouting archaic wisdoms, coveting gold and jewels and stealing away princesses. No, these are creatures of flesh and bone, whose secrets are waiting to be uncovered and understood. Secrets such as why their bodies decay and turn to ash rapidly after death (making their study quite problematical) and must all “true dragons” breathe out some kind of projectile stream: fire or ice needles or caustic gas? Ah, yes, they are definitely a part of the natural world – and thrilling and dangerous, as well!
A Natural History of Dragons is just the first of a fun, and entertaining series; I’m sorry to see it come to a close five books later. I heartily encourage you to jump on board… I mean, c’mon! Dragons! Isn’t that really all I need to say?