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A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan – review
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.
What I Expected: When I first saw the cover of this book I knew I was going to read it. I did not read the synopsis in depth, I had the idea that the book would be a series of vignettes as an homage to scientific field guides. I decided that I’d give it a try even if it was too dry or if there wasn’t enough plot.
What I Got: Much more than I expected. There was an actual plot with characters here! I had no idea it was a real book. I was completely taken in by the cover and title. So I ended up with a very enjoyable story arc with excellent characterization and world building. This is what I personally would call a “fantasy of manners” in which the plot is relatively quiet – no wars, no battles, no magical confrontations – and has a gentility and atmosphere that reminds me of historical fiction. Even though this story takes place in a world that is most definitely not our own, it still feels as if it could be.
What I Enjoyed: Dragons! Well, actually there aren’t a great many scenes involving real dragons, even though they are ostensibly the subject of the story. I liked the main character; she was straightforward, honest with herself and really wanted to fit into the niche society put her in but couldn’t without losing her self. I liked that she was practical and foolish and smart and all these things revealed themselves organically. I liked the tiny town with its complex citizenry and how the author makes you feel that even if the main character spoke the language fluently, there would be issues.
What I Did Not: There wasn’t much here that I didn’t enjoy. I did find that the narrator seemed teeter back and forth between sounding and acting too old for her age or too young. I gave this a full pass given the nature of the narrative as a memoir from a much later date which could easily skew that type of thing. I was also a little miffed about at least one of the events surrounding the dragons that enabled them to study them. I can partially understand it, I just don’t like it much. But that did not take away from the story.
Cover Talk: I’ve heard others say this is a boring cover, nothing there to get excited about. I wholeheartedly disagree. It is a dragon! Done in the style of a scientific field guide! How could you not love this thing? It is unique, different, pretty, and interesting to look at. Todd Lockwood hasn’t been one of my favorite cover artists – not because he isn’t an excellent artist but because I’ve just never seen a cover of his make me go “wow.” Until now, that is. Of course, I’m one of those odd people who really enjoy scientific drawings, and this is a beautiful homage to those types of images.
Would I Recommend?: Yes. If you liked Teresa Edgerton’s Goblin Moon or Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint, you will most likely enjoy this one. Even those who aren’t truly fantasy fans could enjoy this; it reminded me very much of a Georgette Heyer romance with all the romantic escapades being represented here by Isabella’s efforts to study dragons.