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Thursday, February 21, 2013

“A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent” by Marie Brennan (Reviewed by Casey Blair)

Order “A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady TrentHERE
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A Natural History of Dragons—released on February 5, 2013 by Tor—is the first of a new series by Marie Brennan. Her previous books include the Doppelganger series beginning with Warrior, and the Elizabethan fantasy Onyx Court series beginning with Midnight Never Come. You can read more about Marie Brennan on her website here: I admit, I've had some trouble getting into her novels before, but this one hooked me right from the get-go.

I think what really got me was the voice: the narrator, Lady Isabella Trent, is an old lady with no fear of censorship; a lady who has become renowned as a dragon naturalist and has decided to write her memoir; a lady who isn't afraid to write anecdotes and opinions that might scandalize others, because the scientist in her believes that an honest, open, and detailed account is of utmost importance. There's a wonderful blend of clinical and emotional observations about her world, her life, and herself.

The story is set mostly in analogs of England and Russia, with references to Italy, Germany, and countries in Africa. It's essentially Victorian, but with dragons. Structurally, the book uses Victorian chapter titles that manage to summarize the events of a chapter without giving very much of import away before you read it.

I loved the inclusion of sketches of dragons and various other places and people of import (so mostly dragons, because they are what is most important to the character), especially with the implication that the narrator has drawn these sketches herself. There weren't all that many, but they were well-placed.

Brennan writes with an academic's understanding of the world of academia, and her background in anthropology served her well not just in world-building, but also in understanding her narrator's interaction with the past and current worlds. She gets away with a lot of exposition by having her older narrator explain how societal standards and her perception of world differ from those of her younger self. The narrator also periodically references written works in other Victorian styles with varying degrees of approval and chagrin (mostly chagrin, even for her own).

While I loved the older Lady Trent's perspective, as she began her story I also immediately identified with her younger self, the little girl collecting bugs, though that will be different for everyone. The common feature, though, is that as a child she had hobbies that were not what society considered normal or recommended, and that is a more universal experience.

As a lady of her time, Lady Trent did not simply resolve as a child that she was going to buck society and become a heroic naturalist no matter what anyone thought. That would have smacked uncomfortably Mary-Sue-like for my taste, but it's nothing so grandiose; she still exists as a lady of her time, but progressively becomes regarded as more the eccentric. She periodically makes references to what she calls her "deranged practicality," which is part of what makes her story a joy to read. She has wild ideas that she then orders and executes with scientific precision.

Descriptions of places come to the reader through the lens of Isabella's detail-oriented mind, cataloging specs and features, which keep us right in the character's POV. The sheer detail also goes a long way for suspension of disbelief, because explaining the physics of how a dragon wing is structured goes a long way towards my ability to believe that it actually can work. She grounds her story firmly in the details, so the fantastical aspects seem utterly natural.

The POV gives Marie Brennan a lot of room for commentary. None of it is overhanded, but all of it was poignant. She manages to cover culture shock, the relative importance of proprieties given time and distance, the notion that scientific understanding changes with time, people who moralize from the comforts of their homes with limited understanding of realities in other places and walks of life, and the revolutionary idea that she could be both feminine and not feeble in the least. All this, and with a sense of humor: she deals with one double standard by commenting that although her editor is exploding, she sees no reason that she should be able to write about animal anatomy but not her own hips or breasts. She notes that despite exoticized stories of "flashing-eyed" women, she never once met anyone who emitted strange lights from her eyes.

I appreciate that Lady Trent gave no pretense of her marriage being a grand passion, and discussing a different kind of love based on mutual respect that grows over time. There's not anything wrong with grand passion in a story, of course; but I do like to see other kinds of romantic subplots from time to time—not only because reading only one kind of love story give people very skewed ideas on what to expect out of life, but I also appreciate the variety.

Of course, I have a few quibbles. I admit that I wasn't excited about the up-tight and strict mother vs. saintly father trope, but at least she qualified it. I also didn't appreciate that the narrative makes it sound like the protagonist is the only woman in the world to be intelligent, let alone to have a scientifically minded brain. With the exception of one maid, all the other women in the story are interested in social standing and talk about nothing of import. Part of that could be a reflection of how the narrator perceived other women in her society, but to me it came across as all the male characters were allowed to have multifaceted beliefs and approaches, but the women seemed to behave as a whole—excepting our narrator.

There were a couple instances of faulty tense, which I'm fairly sure was an intentional choice to not spoil suspense. For instance, "So-and-so is good at tennis," when So-and-so is actually dead before the end of the story. The book is written with the present-tense narrator narrating the affairs of her younger self, so the narrator would of course be aware that So-and-so dies before the end of her story. There were only a couple of misleading present tenses, and in those cases using the past would have given away something critical, which is why I'm convinced they're deliberate. Other than those few, Brennan handled the switching between tenses flawlessly, which is no mean trick. Often times such switching can feel choppy or jarring, but the author blended the narrative seamlessly.

I suppose if you're looking for epic dragon slaying hunts, this book may not be for you (though there is certainly some dragon slaying involved). This isn't an epic take on dragons; it's a memoir of scientific and personal discovery. There's no obvious antagonist to defeat beyond lack of understanding, but what makes A Natural History of Dragons so riveting is Isabella's quest not just to better understand dragons, no matter the cost, but to understand the metaphorical dragon in herself. I found the book completely engrossing, and I can't wait for the next installment.


Pabkins said...

Wow that sounds crazy interesting. I love dragons of course - I don't know if this one would be for me based on the way you described it, it sounds like it would be a slower read for me and I'm the type that loves action. But the description of the anthropology aspect does sound riveting indeed.
Pabkins @ My Shelf Confessions

Camille Picott said...

Wow, this book sounds really good! I am a sucker for fantasy books that have older protags. Their POV can be so refreshing after reading loads of books starring teens and characters in their 20s. Definitely going to check this one out!

Casey said...

You know, I was worried at first that because of the structure it was going to be slow-paced, but it actually moves really quickly. The protagonist insinuates herself into adventures far more than is really "proper" =P.

I love older protagonists, too. That's one of the many reasons I enjoyed Bujold's Chalion series so much, I think. People hardly stop having fascinating experiences once they hit 30, after all, and it's nice to read a more mature voice from time to time.

Fantasy Books said...

Dragons rock! ...apart from when you're playing Skyrim. Might give this a read after I finish my current book off.


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