A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan is a Solid Read

aNHoD Cover 300dpiPublished February 5, 2013 by Tor, A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan is a fantasy book filled with the splendour of dragons, but strongly rooted in reality.

If you are hoping for a book on dragon anatomy, or other type of textbook-style natural history book, you will be disappointed. Instead, what you will read is the delightful memoir of Lady Trent, now an old woman, looking back upon her youth and recounting her early years, how she fell in love with dragons, and the journey she took — both personal and physical — to study these mysterious and magnificent creatures.

The synopsis of A Natural History of Dragons reads:

You, dear reader, 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. . . .

All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.

Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.

Marie Brennan introduces an enchanting new world in A Natural History of Dragons.

A Natural History of Dragons is a very interesting mix of a story that takes place on a fictional Earth-like planet, but set in the familiar Victorian era. The names of the places will be completely unfamiliar to the reader, but the societal attitudes regarding gender roles and the division of classes, and the style of the first-person narrative are both familiar and entertaining, if you enjoy period writing. The story also employs the Victorian method for scientific study.

Marie Brennan‘s background in anthropology and folklore is quite apparent in this book. She took great care in capturing the attitudes of the time, even if the attitudes about what is and isn’t acceptable for women to pursue are slightly more liberal. Brennan not only captured the Victorian attitudes, but she was able to capture the worldviews of other societies found within this story, even when filtered through the lens through with which Lady Trent viewed her world. Reading A Natural History of Dragons is a very similar experience to reading actual journals from the natural historians and explorers from that period.

Aside from a good amount of care Brennan took to create a believable story, filled with the pioneering spirit that was quite rich during the Victorian era, she created a fascinating character with Lady Trent.

Some readers will enjoy the fact that Lady Trent is a tomboy who, not content to adhere to the accepted gender roles of a Victorian era setting, throws caution to the wind and follows her passions, risking being turned away from family and high society, undeterred by the gossip of which she is assured to become the topic.

For me, my appreciation of Lady Trent is because she is a very logical and pragmatic individual. She is not one for emotion. She views every thing in a very clinical, and mostly detached, fashion. But, like all humans who are not sociopaths, she can be hit with unexpected emotion, and the way she deals with those situations is very familiar. While she may be very open about her passions and interests, she is very guarded when it comes to her feelings; she will devote paragraphs to dragons, but only a couple sentences to an important emotional event. The way in which she demonstrates emotion is very subtle, yet real.

Lady Trent is also that old lady who can now say what is on her mind and get away with it. There are many times in her narrative where she takes full advantage of her position as an old lady who is recounting the years of her youth. If you are a fan of Downton Abbey, you may see her as a Victorian version of the Dowager Countess, but perhaps even more “shocking” if you were to take into account how attitudes changed between the Victorian era and the  post-Edwardian era.

Fantasy, in novel form, is always a hit or miss thing with me. I have a really difficult time with suspension of disbelief. Also — this could be a result of just bad luck when choosing books, or bad recommendations — I find fantasy spends too much time painting the world, and not enough time moving the story forward.

It is this area that A Natural History of Dragons is a bit of a mixed bag with me. From an academic point of view, I really enjoyed how Brennan painted this world, brilliantly mixing fictional elements with real world history. Often, my brain spent a lot of time drawing parallels to Victorian era society. The book engaged my brain on that level. From an entertainment point of view, the book wasn’t a page turner. It didn’t enthrall or captivate me on the, “I must know what happens next” level. Because of this, it took a couple weeks to finish the book, instead of my normal habit to read a book in one sitting.

Normally, when a book fails to entertain me, I stop reading it when I put it down. To Brennan’s credit, two things made me continue to read A Natural History of Dragons.

The first thing is that it did engage me on an academic level. I much prefer to read non-fiction over fiction. I am a nerd before I am a geek. It fed my nerd-brain; the nerd-brain that is very fascinated by human psychology, sociology, and cultural anthropology. For other readers, this may not be a bonus.

The second thing is that Lady Trent caused me to smile. In fact, she did this quite often. While I wasn’t foaming at the mouth, wanting to know where her adventure would lead her next, I was very curious to learn how she would deal with situations and what her reactions would be. I ended up caring more about how she was going to mentally weather her situations, and hardly at all about the specific situation. I can only think of a couple other books where I actually cared about a character, instead of only seeing them as a prop within a story.

Aside from Lady Trent’s story, A Natural History of Dragons contains some wonderful illustrations by Todd Lockwood.

Dead Dragon

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Interior illustration by Todd Lockwood

A solid read, I recommend A Natural History of Dragons to anyone who enjoys Victorian era-style storytelling and/or who is fascinated by different cultural attitudes. If you are into dragons, you may enjoy this book. However, for me, A Natural History of Dragons is less to do with dragons, and more to do with overcoming challenges — not just physical, but also societal — self-discoveries and personal growth. Finally, this book may inspire you to throw caution to the wind and pursue your own passions, no matter what obstacles – real or imagined — stand in your way.

Aside from the above images, Tor has also provided the following expert for you to read:

You can purchase A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Indigo Books & Music, Kobo Books, or wherever books are sold.

A copy of this book was provided for the purposes of this review.

Jules Sherred is the parent of two teenage boys, freelance writer, web designer, author of Five Little Zombies and Fred, General Manager and radio personality at The Look 24/7, owner of the largest Star Trek community on Google+, Geeky Pleasures creator, geek support for Parsec Award winning The Minister of Chance, and more. On the Geeky Pleasures Radio Show, Jules has interviewed Wil Wheaton, Jonathan Coulton, Phil Plait, Sylvester McCoy, Richard Hatch, Paul and Storm, R.A. Salvatore, John Kovalic, and so many more. Jules' writing can also be found on Hugo Award winning SF Signal, GeekMom, United Federation of Pla.net/s, Nerdy With Children, Star Wars vs Star Trek. Slowly, Jules is working on another book titled Nerd Love. You can follow Jules on Twitter @GeekyJules. Also, JULES LOVES STAR TREK.

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Jules Sherred is the parent of two teenage boys, freelance writer, web designer, author of Five Little Zombies and Fred, General Manager and radio personality at The Look 24/7, owner of the largest Star Trek community on Google+, Geeky Pleasures creator, geek support for Parsec Award winning The Minister of Chance, and more. On the Geeky Pleasures Radio Show, Jules has interviewed Wil Wheaton, Jonathan Coulton, Phil Plait, Sylvester McCoy, Richard Hatch, Paul and Storm, R.A. Salvatore, John Kovalic, and so many more. Jules' writing can also be found on Hugo Award winning SF Signal, GeekMom, United Federation of Pla.net/s, Nerdy With Children, Star Wars vs Star Trek. Slowly, Jules is working on another book titled Nerd Love. You can follow Jules on Twitter @GeekyJules. Also, JULES LOVES STAR TREK.

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