the Little Red Reviewer

A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan

Posted on: March 15, 2013

SAM_2597A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan

published Feb 2013

where I got it: purchased new











In early 2012 I found my favorite book of 2012. I figured it was a fluke, as how can you read something and know nothing else could compare? it’s only March of 2013, and yet again, I can tell you without a doubt, Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons is one of my top reads of this year.

Not into fantasy? Don’t think a book with a dragon on the cover is for you? I don’t care. Read this book.  Like its main character, it transcends expectations.

Marie  Brennan has written a book I’ve been waiting a very long time to read.  All this talk about strong female main characters? Women who fight for what they want, who are strong yet impulsive, intelligent, vocal, protective towards their loved ones? Brennan gave me all of that and took it one step further. She gave Isabella Camherst the most important personality trait of all: she made Isabella completely realistic.

How to describe Isabella? A naive and sometimes thoughtless (not out of malice, simply out of ignorance and impulsiveness) woman who sees nothing odd about being only woman in the room,  and who can’t possibly understand the unintended consequences of not caring about societies expectations for her gender.  forgive the presumptuousness, but it’s as if Brennan spied on me when I was nineteen years old and wrote a book about my imaginary alter ego.  Dragons were never my forte, but I do recall many a college course where I was the only female, being secretly jealous of other women my age who made looking and acting feminine so easy, while at the same time knowing their lifestyle wasn’t for me.  I feel like this book was written just for me.  Like Isabella, I often felt confused and trapped by societies expectations.

Written as a memoir, an older and wiser Isabella is looking back on her life, often judging and  laughing at her younger self. We get a few chapters on her childhood, her fascination with birds and the tiny bird-like dragons called sparklings, how her brother sneaks books from their father’s library for young Isabella to read.  But all little girls must grow up to be proper young ladies, and she soon gets to an age where looking the part to find a husband is more important than one’s private hobbies. Not as an indulgence, but out of respect for his daughter, her father attempts to match her with suitors who will respect her intelligence in turn, and also have the large libraries.  (again, Ms. Brennan must have been spying on me. I knew he was the one because his bedroom was filled with books).  She meets her future husband, Jacob Camherst, they bond over an intellectual love of knowledge and dragons, and make plans to live happily ever after.

Beyond a character who spoke to me on a personal level, Brennan builds a fully realized Europe-esque secondary fantasy world to play in, complete with different religious observations, languages, cultural identities, historic population movements, and a scientific society on the verge of the modern age, with airplanes and large ships hinted at. This is an age of discovery, when salons and colloquiums existed to share discoveries of natural history and archaeology with all interested parties.  Budding authors take note: Worldbuilding? this is how you do it.

The majority of the story itself takes place shortly after Isabella’s marriage to Jacob. She convinces him to take her along on a scientific expedition in a remote mountainous village in the country of Vystrana to learn more about the dragons that live there. Their guide mysteriously absent, at first all the expedition finds is irritated villagers and a few unwashed smugglers. The elusive dragons seem to only appear to attack humans, something they have never done before. As more information about the dragons and their lairs are uncovered, inexplicably strange things begin to happen around Isabella.

I don’t mean to lead you on with that last sentence, this is not a traditionally suspenseful story. It is truly written like a memoir, with little in the way of cliffhangers or melodrama.  After many sensational stories written about her during her lifetime, Isabella is trying to set the record straight, to tell the public what really happened, all those years ago. She doesn’t care whose feathers get ruffled, or how many hurtful memories she must dredge up.  She judges her younger self just as harshly as she judges others, she has regrets and missed opportunities. I couldn’t get enough of her voice, and I simply must know more about her life.

Not traditionally suspenseful be damned, I couldn’t put this book down. I wanted to know what was in the caves they found, I wanted to know exactly why the village priest thought they had attracted evil spirits. I wanted to catch one more hint of everything Brennan borrowed from to create her perfect secondary world.  I desperately wanted to know what is store next for Isabella and Jacob. I wanted to hear more of Isabella’s voice.

Very long story short, I loved everything about A Natural History of Dragons.  From the characterization to the worldbuilding to the dragons themselves, everything was flawless.  I hated only that it had to end. I take solace is that I’ve heard from a very reputable source that there are two more books planned about Isabella, Lady Trent.

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30 Responses to "A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan"

I’m in the tiny minority who wasn’t thrilled by this. I have no great love for the Victorian period, and I didn’t really enjoy the fact that Brennan chose to create a fantasy version of it with all its sexism. The worldbuilding is fantastic and Isabella is a strong, well-written character, but I was annoyed rather than inspired – why can’t she just be allowed to get on with being a smart, brave, pioneering scientist and not have worry about propriety or getting married?

I’ve got a review here, if you’re interested (and don’t mind the buzzkill…):

having a different opinion isn’t a buzzkill. different strokes for different folks, you know!

I can completely understand your frustrations. Did you ever read Gail Carriger’s Soulless? A lot of the sexism/classism/Victoriana in those books really annoyed the crap out of me. Same time period, similar “girl breaks the rules of society” concept. Brennan just handled it differently.

I’m off to read and comment on your review. . .

Argh! I haven’t read Soulless, but it’s one of the higher-priority books on my tbr pile. But maybe I’ll like it the way you liked this :)

I though T. Aaron Payton (Tim Pratt) did a better job with breaking gender boundaries in a Victorian setting in The Constantine Affliction. More fun, less pushy.

Also, I have to admit my opinion was no doubt influenced by these two articles on ‘historically accurate’ sexism in fantasy:

thanks for the link to the Tor article. I am so conflicted on things like this, so very, very conflicted.

Give Soulless a shot, if you like it, awesome, if not, don’t worry about it.

Yes, they’re not simple issues, and I have to admit to liking GoT, which is one of the offenders mentioned. But it’s an interesting discussion point. Brennan at least has a female character resisting and breaking some social norms, although Isabella does seem to be the lone exceptional woman.

I definitely need to read Soulless. I need it for a reading challenge (I’m addicted to them) and its popularity has made me curious. I’d like to be in on the conversation, if nothing else.

Loved this book, too! So glad you did. I agree that it wasn’t traditionally suspenseful, but certainly once they were on the expedition there was a sort of gripping ‘what does it MEAN?!’ quality. Maybe it’s a good mystery wrapped up as a memoir? In any case, I too look forward to more.

[...] a reblog of the Little Red Reviewer‘s review of A Natural History of Dragons by Marie [...]

Okay, now I might just be sold on this. I’ve also shared the review on Facebook. :D One more for the list!

I fell in love with the cover 2 weeks ago when I first saw it. Now you have made me fall in love with the main character, and I don’t even HAVE a copy of the book. Damn you. *goes off to plan book shopping trip*

I fell in love with the cover art too. When I saw it at the bookstore I didn’t even know what it was about, but I knew I had to have it!

This might just be the review that pushes this book from the wishlist to the basket, especially as it strikes me as a book you need to own in hardback or not at all. I’m usually pretty ‘meh’ on fantasy creatures and illustrated covers, but that’s just gorgeous. I really got my fingers burnt with the last book I bought primarily for the cover art (Blackbirds, since you ask), but it’s looking more and more I might go for the stuff inside this as well.

If it makes you feel better, I got burnt on Blackbirds too.

I’m sure they’ll eventually do a paperback version, i cringe and the thought of the publishers changing the cover art.

What made you feel burned by Blackbirds? It’s coming up very soon on my “to by” list.

It just didn’t work for me, for I think the same reasons Richard Kadrey’s stuff hasn’t worked for me. If you’re planning on buying/reading, don’t read my review of Blackbirds until after you read the book. I’m definitely in the minority of readers when it comes to Blackbirds.

I, however, have no such qualms. Read me! Read Me!

Or if you prefer the executive summary, it really felt like a book written by a teenage boy trying too hard to prove he was ‘edgy’ by swearing a lot and talking about sex and violence, but who just ended up demonstrating what a narrow, sheltered life he’d lead up till then.

I know you were probably asking Red, not me, but I read it recently enough it’s still in my head. Apologies.

OMG I will read this book. I love the cover alone anyway not to mention the title. I would pick this up in a New York minute if I saw it in a shop anyway just based on those two things but now this review on top. Talk about your glowing recommendations. How could I not read this?
Lynn :D

Lynn, this is truly right up your alley! I’m confident this is one you’re going to love!

You’ve sold me on this one :) I really want to go out and buy it. The main character sounds like someone I would love reading about.

Kamo, I can not believe you used the work bukkake in a review! that’s disgusting, but you’re my hero!

:) If it helps, in the original Japanese it just means ‘splash’, or in certain contexts, ‘pour’.

Actually, that’s not help at all, is it?

See, I really like the look of this (not only because it does have some very nice, old-fashioned cover art going for it…), but the fact that it’s another fantasy novel set in another European-esque world in the Victorian era with all strings attached makes me… hesitant. From your review (as well as a few others I’ve encountered), it seems like the book is really quite good, but I just can’t help feeling like it might disappoint me somewhat…

I have such a comfort level with fantasies that take place either in Europe or a vaguely secondary Europe, that i don’t mind another one.

I do hope you’ll give this one a try. Maybe get it from the library, so if you get 50 pages in and decide it’s not for you, you’re not out $20.

[…] other reviews : The Incurable Bluestocking ; Lynn’s Book Blog ; Little Red Reviewer […]

[…] A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan (2013) – This is the memoir of Lady Isabella Trent, naturalist, scientist, dragon expert.  This is one of those books that I felt was written just for me, and I knew it would be on my best of list when I read it way back in March. Also going on my Hugo ballot. […]

[…] some plot spoilers for the first book in the series, A Natural History of Dragons, which I reviewed here.   This is a case where you shouldn’t worry about plot spoilers, because while the plot of the […]

So excited for this! I’m waiting until it’s a little closer to the release of the third book before I start reading em, though :D

you are much smarter than me then. I’ve had to wait with baited breath for each one to come out! One of these days I will wise up and wait till a series is done to start reading it.

I’m divided on that scale. Whereas I like having each book to chain read, I’ve found some of the books I’ve enjoyed most are those I spent a long time waiting for, that deliver on that anticipation at least. It’s hit and miss. If they don’t deliver, I’m left raging, lol.

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