Author: Marie Brennan
Genre: alternate history, fantasy
Series: Untitled #1
Pages: 336 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: expected February 5 2013
Source: publishers via NetGalley
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.
I loved this; I had so much fun reading A Natural History of Dragons that I was very reluctant to finish it and end my time with these splendid characters, in this recognizable but very different world. I've realized this much about myself as a reader - of a book has dragons in it, I want to read it. NOW. With the first in a new series set in an entirely plausible alternate world, one populated with many many kinds of dragon, Marie Brennan offers up a new, fun, and often funny look at my favorite mythological creature. One that did not disappoint or fail to entertain with its dry wit and keen observations. This is an ambitious novel; one that is utterly unlike any other dragon-focused book I've read, and of the most part, A Natural History of Dragons succeeds in all it attempts to do something new and fun with the genre.
Written as a memoir, in first-person POV, from that world's most eminent authority on dragonkind, Lady Trent's voyage from awkward, knowledge-avaricious girl to the adventurous authority on all things winged is wholly involving and full of sardonic humor. Against all convention and etiquette, Isabelle thirsts for knowledge, power, and information. Her journey from repressed child to stubborn, determined woman takes her down many interesting paths and across the lives of others who are likeminded - if of the 'appropriate' gender. Along the way, this Jane Austen-esque character is embroiled in mysteries, discoveries, and even a bittersweet lovestory of her own. Her life is constantly complicated by her unconventional personality from an early age, and Isabella's genuine struggles to find a life she can lead happily made her easy to root for and invest in. She's a strong female protagonist in a world where just that is frowned upon and disliked. Isabella, aside from the dragons themselves, is the high point of the novel. Brash, wonderful, stubborn and occasionally quite beastly herself, she is a fully-rounded and well-realized character.
The novel reads like a memoir from the start, in the best way possible. It feels real, and authentic despite its fantastical nature. It's a brisk, and informative style; one that is full of asides from the future-version of Isabella writing her life. With a wry, often self-deprecating humor ("...to this day I could not carry a tune if you tied it around my waist for safekeeping.."), Isabelle's tone is readily, and authentically conveyed to the reader. As a curious child, or an "inknose" (a synonym for our world's "bluestocking" from Victorian times I'm sure), Isabella's narration is steady and easy to follow, even as she delves deeper and deeper into her 'peculiar' obsession for dangerous dragons. She is a more than capable storyteller, and the twists and turns her personal journey takes over the course of the novel is well-handled and full of mystery and deceit to keep readers guessing.
I can't writer a review for this and not mention the fabulous illustrations that pop up throughout the novel. Drawn by artist Todd Lockwood, these all-too-infrequent pictures really add a new layer to this odd and charming book. Several kinds of the dragons Isabella encounters are pictured, in lovely and informative detail. Those seen of the dragons and of the settings and places Isabella ventures really add to the overall story and world being created. This novel is more about the scientific quest to understand a dragon, rather than the usual fantasy route of fighting or slaying them, and it continually felt fresh and new. The drawings from "Isabella" help to reinforce that this is a novel about a woman with a thirst to understand nature around her, not to conquer it.
I really, really hope that there will be sequels for this. I want more. At least two more books set in this pseudo-world of fantasy and manners. I usually lament the lack of standalone novels these days, but this is a novel that