— ♦ —
What a wonderful flight of fancy!
Marie Brennan’s newest work, A Natural History of Dragons, is a delightful blend of Victoriana, fantasy and archaic science at its best. Told as the memoir of renowned dragon scholar Lady Trent, we are introduced to a young Isabella through the “current day” prologue where the stage is immaculately set: while knowledge of dragons is now considered respectable, before it was not, more legend and folk tale than science; and the earlier efforts of Isabella, as told in this initial volume, was full of adventure that had already captured the public imagination. Let the fun begin!
We contemporary readers quickly learn that although the matter of dress, language, location and sensibilities greatly resemble Victorian England, Isabella’s home country of Scirland has one major difference from our world: the presence of dragonkin. From common, bat-sized sparklings (originally thought to be insects that resemble dragons) routinely found in meadows and even large yards, to wolf-drakes (smaller cousins of dragons) that were scarce but not unknown and a bane to sheep herds, Scirland has its share of dragon-like creatures. But the true dragons, the full sized, ferocious creatures of legend, were only seen in captivity, and then very rarely. True dragons were found across the channel on the continent of Anthiope, in countries less advanced and unfortunately quite subject to political maneuverings and squabbling.
Normally the pathway to scientific scholarship would be closed to a highbred young lady such as Isabella, but an insatiable curiosity, a determined will, five brothers and an indulgent set of parents, (especially a father with a robust library), combined to give her enough knowledge to keep her interest in dragons piqued. While embracing propriety and feminine etiquette, (for the most part), she still is not able to keep her interest in natural history from asserting itself; however, it luckily attracts the attention of dashing young Jacob Camherst, the educated second son of a baron, and by age 19, young Isabella is married to not only one who shares her interests, but someone of whom she can count as a friend.
Not long into the marriage, Isabella finagles their way into an expedition with famed dragon researcher Lord Hilford, to the mountains of far off Vystrana where they hope to observe the dragon species rock-wyrm in its native habitat. It is during this expedition that much of the adventure for the book takes place, not only with the dragons themselves, but also with the inclusion of political intrigue, hidden treasures, misunderstandings, machinations and mysteries, and even smugglers!
With this novel, (and the heartening promise of more to come), Marie Brennan has certainly come of age as a writer of style and substance. Her Doppelganger duology, first published in 2006 and then reissued as Warrior and Witch in 2008, was fanciful, but formulaic. For me, her much more successful Oxny Court series, (Midnight Never Come, In Ashes Lie, A Star Shall Fall, In Fate Conspire), chronicling the reign of the Faerie Queen Lune, who lived below the London Stone in the Onxy Court, was a delightful mix of fantasy and history. But in A Natural History of Dragons, Ms. Brennan has captured the voice and visage of Victorian England without having to be constrained by actual events and circumstances. She is able to spin a tale both familiar and fantastic, and to give us a unique heroine with a quick wit, a keen mind, and a few failings to keep her honest, yet still contained 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.
In the dark of night, when I lay on our lumpy, uncomfortable bed and tried to go to sleep, my mind entertained itself with ever wilder visions of how I might solve this puzzle on their behalf. It began with half-reasonable notions: I could sit with a sketch pad at a good vantage point and draw the movements of the dragons, to see if there was a pattern. (And pray none of the dragons spotted me and swooped in for an easy meal: this is why the notion was only half reasonable.) I could make my own search of the mountains, concentrating in areas Jacob and Mr. Wilker had not yet covered. (And pray I didn’t fall as my husband had, break my leg, and lie helplessly until a dragon came looking for an easy meal.) I could walk empty-handed into the Vystrani wilderness, trusting to my childhood dream of dragons to guide my steps, as Panachai had been guided by the Lord in the desert, until fate led me to the perfect lair. (Where I would become an easy meal. The deranged side of my mind invented these ideas, but the practical side knew where they would end.)
Having the book present as a memoir allows Ms. Brennan to let the story take center stage, and there is just the right amount of “technical” discussion to keep us focused on a marvelous sense of discovery. After all, even though Lady Trent is writing her memoir for the general public, she has spent most of her adult life in scientific pursuits (and it is the public’s admiration for her work and discoveries that were the impetus to publication). 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 a well to do lady interacting with a peasant community who does not stand on propriety and convention, but rather tradition and custom. It makes for a marvelous bit of tension without a lot of angst or inserted drama (and a fair amount of subtle humor).
And then there are the dragons. Never before have I read a book (or encountered in any medium save for a few visual artworks) where the dragons were so believable. These are not magical beings steeped in mysticism, spouting archaic wisdoms, coveting gold and jewels and stealing away princesses. No, they are creatures of mystery and lore but still animals of flesh and bone, whose secrets are waiting to be uncovered and understood. Ms. Brennan does give the dragons some interesting physiological quirks: their bodies decay and turn to ash rapidly after death (making their study quite problematical) and all “true dragons” breathe out some kind of projectile stream: fire or ice needles or caustic gas. But they are definitely a part of the natural world; thrilling and dangerous perhaps, but real and not the stuff of supernatural reckoning. What a relief, and so nicely done, too!
So thank you, Lady Trent, for sharing your story with us. I’m looking forward to reading many more installments in the days to come!