A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan
In Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons the author spins 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.
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 that 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.