Thursday, June 16, 2016

Book Review: A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan, is the first of a series of fantasy memoirs of the Lady Trent as she explores the world and learns about dragons, among other things. I heard good things about it a few years ago and have been intrigued by it and its cover. A friend of mine at work lent me a copy (an actual physical book after so long!), so I got a chance to read it.

Read on for my full review.

Overall Impression
This was an interesting book about a young woman who wants to study dragons. Her character is decently well developed and the narrative style is interesting, but I felt the plot a bit shallow and the setting too similar to that of our own world. While it was certainly an enjoyable read, I'm not sold on it enough to consider the other books in the series quite yet.

The book is narrated as a memoir and it works very well in that fashion. It feels legit, even though it's completely made up. You follow the life of Isabella Camherst, the Lady Trent, as she grows up, gets married, and goes on an expedition to study dragons. The world is presented through her eyes, so you get a unique perspective that you normally don't get in other fantasy books that cycle between characters.

I felt a bit cheated by the narrative as Isabella hovers near the Mary Sue line. She's certainly not perfect or an author-insert, but too many things happen in her favor despite her circumstances. Growing up in a society that says women shouldn't be out learning about 'scary' things like dragons? No problem, her father is supportive and gets her the books she wants. Trying to find a husband? Not an issue, a surprise visit to some captive dragons with her brother leads to the perfect match. Want to go off and see dragons in the wild? No worries, her husband can be easily convinced to take her with him. The list goes on and on. She always seems to be at the right place at the right time and with the right ideas. On the one hand, she proves herself invaluable to the team, but on the other, you have to wonder how anything at all could get done without her. To be fair, this is her memoir so we are seeing everything from her perspective and it makes sense for her to emphasize her contributions.

The main character is naturally the one telling the story: the Lady Trent, or Isabella Camherst as she's known throughout the book. She is a strong woman very much interested in science and willing to put aside conventional Victorian norms to pursue that. In our day and age, a women like her would not (or at least, should not) be surprising, but the author makes it clear how ahead of her time she is. That's not to say she is perfect; she does make mistakes and while she may be progressive when it comes to a woman's place in the world, she is somewhat dismissive of her servants and the other cultures she encounters. Once you realize this she becomes a richer character and you can see how she struggles to accept her foreign servant.

Setting / World Building
This book is set in a fictional world with country names like Scirland, Vystrana, Eiverheim, and others. It's easy to see the similarities between this world and our own set in Victorian times. In fact, other than place names, it feels just like our world... except for the dragons.

As the title suggests, this is a book has dragons. To be fair, there aren't that many of them as the story revolves more around Isabella. But given her interest in them, you get to see a few varieties and see how she approaches them with an analytical mind. The main ones presented are the rock-wyrms since they are native to the region the characters visit in their expedition. There are still many mysteries regarding the dragons, but this book serves as an introduction to them as a field of study, promising future works will delve more into them.

Final Thoughts
Overall, this was an interesting first book on the life and adventures of Isabella. I found the memoir narrative style engaging, but didn't enjoy much the actual plot. The setting was promising, but not as magical as I expected coming in. I am curious as to how she gets the name "Lady Trent", but not so much that I would immediately dig into the rest of the series. I'm a bit disappointed I didn't like this more, but maybe I overhyped it by having heard good things on it before. Or maybe I'm just not into Victorian era novels?

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