I received this book from a friend who has an unerring knack in telling me what it is I want to read. I have him to thank for Catherynne Valente and A Song of Ice and Fire (which we both started before that series began its downhill trudge in A Feast for Crows, but that is neither here nor there). His taste has not erred with A Natural History of Dragons, which I absolutely ate up.
I’m calling this a historical fantasy because, though it quite clearly does not take place in our world — the maps are nothing like — it is still entirely flavoured by our world. The tone is utterly Victorian (never minding that in this universe, a king is regnant over the nation in question) and expertly aped, at that. The cultures are not just approximations but total analogs for the British, the Russians, etc. But the geography is entirely different, and the year is apparently 5658. (Which would be 1897 in the Jewish calendar, so perhaps there’s an analog there?) At any rate, Brennan never explicates clearly the nature of her world, and it’s a bit of an odd thing to wrap one’s head around, but it works well enough. Our heroine, Lady Trent, former Miss Isabella Hendemoore, is by “the present”, an old woman, recognized as a pioneer in her field of dragon studies, anointed with honors, and well-respected. She’s decided this means she can now say whatever she pleases, and has written a memoir to do just that.
It begins with her childhood and the first stirring of her obsession with dragons — thought, in that time, to be a highly improper fixation for a young woman. Science alone is bad enough, but to focus on such terrifying beasts compounds the fault. She has a supportive if wary father to balance out her propriety-determined mama, however, and he tries to temper her less lady-like urges by nudging her onto an “appropriate” path that can still indulge her interests, eventually finding her a husband who will tolerate her passion. Early in their marriage, they join an expedition to the distinctly Slavic-flavored Vystrana, in search of rock-wyrms. Once there, however, they discover that the rock-wyrms have taken to attacking travelers and hunters with far more regularity than they have ever before known. Isabella determines to figure out what’s causing this strange and dangerous behavior — but the recalcitrance of the village folk, the interference of smugglers, and the hotbed of local politics may chase the expedition out of town before they can complete their mission.
This book is really interesting from a few different perspectives. One, as I mentioned, is the odd historical-fantastical world-blending. Another is the heroine. Isabella is refreshing from a feminist perspective: certainly strong-willed, but not a kick-ass Lara Croft type. She’s a scientist above everything else, and I think that’s wonderful. Her brain is analytical and curious, and though she is not possessed of great sentimentality, she also has plenty of distinctly feminine traits. She’s also a well-rounded character, with some flaws that balance out her admirable traits — she’s impulsive, and she very often doesn’t seem to think through how her actions will affect others. On the whole, she reminds me a lot of Evie Carnahan from The Mummy. The book also avoids the temptation to backhandedly put other women down, though. We don’t see a lot of them, but Isabella’s best friend from childhood is a romantic sort, fond of reading novels, a little flirtatious, highly imaginative, and described as “improper in what Amanda thought to be fashionable ways” — and though Isabella acknowledges she’s not like that at all, Manda also never gets painted in a truly unflattering light. Her passions aren’t condemned by the narrative — indeed, more than once Isabella admits that a little more of Manda’s empathy and social grace would do her good. But whatever the in-world society thinks of each of them, the book itself doesn’t suggest that either is inherently better than the other, and I appreciate that.
Then there are the dragons. In the world of this book, they are not fantastic, magical creatures of awe and wonderment — just another predator species, more difficult to study than lions or tigers, but without any mysticism attached to them. Isabella’s fascination is rooted in scientific wonder: why do their carcasses disintegrate so soon after death? What functions of their bones and skin allows them to fly? What creates their horrible breathe (which might be fire, or ice, or poison)? The approach is refreshing, particularly since we see that what are creatures of inspiration and intrigue in Isabella’s native Scirling are seen as nuisances in the places directly affected by them (rather the way a lot of modern apex predators are viewed today, really). I suspect an underlying theme will be one of Isabella’s desire to preserve dragons conflicting with the needs of the modern world. The artwork (by Todd Lockwood) augments the story beautifully, with beautiful sketches of dragons and their component parts, many deconstructed as though part of a medical text, showing bone and sinew (as on the front cover).
Overall, this book is a lot of fun, with a strong voice and a refreshing turn on a mythical creature I think long due for a new approach. I knock a point off because, well, I could’ve done with more dragons, especially in the last third of the book. They sort of become secondary to the mystery plot going on (and the mystery isn’t particularly well-crafted). Somewhere in the last arc, the balance between natural history and adventure story gets thrown off. Honestly, I’d really like to read the books that she refers to throughout — the actual texts on dragons which have, by the time she’s writing the memoir, made her so famous. Or at least pieces of them — I can envision a successful track where the writing moved back and forth between those and the memoir narrative.
According to Brennan’s website, there will be four more entries into this series, and I’m looking forward to picking up the next one, due out in March. I also enjoyed Brennan’s style well enough to consider looking into her prior series.