A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan – Advance Review

aNHoD Cover 150dpi

Book Jacket:

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.

Marie Brennan introduces an enchanting new world in A Natural History of Dragons.

You can read an excerpt here.


Think Mary Robinette Kowal, only if she’d started with an Amelia Peabody base (as opposed to her Jane Austen inspired Shades of Milk and Honey), and you’ll start to get close to the nature of this book.

A Victorian-esque tale of scientific exploration, shaded with a deft touch of fantasy and starring a plucky (yet proper) leading lady – one that I can’t help but suspect might rather enjoy tea with Gail Carriger’s Alexia – and I ask you, what’s not to like? This book may not be perfect – and admittedly at times it can come across as a tad dry – but I did merrily enjoy reading it, and will definitely be back for more.

First off, in terms of the world-building, this book is just lovely. Set in what seems to be an early Victorian type of society – but in a different world, mind, which allows for fun riffing off the norm (not to mention, dragons) – Brennan succeeds where so many others have failed in that she made me absolutely believe in both the constrictions of Isabella’s social standing and in the way she managed to subvert so many of them while all the while remaining firmly a woman of her time and place. Not once did this book slip into modern tone, vernacular or content – instead it absolutely felt turn of the century as it seamlessly wove together the social fabric of its fantasy world. As for the larger world vista, beyond the drawing rooms and ballrooms, while this book may not have had as much time to explore the wilds or expand the horizon as I would have wished, it did still make for a very proper beginning to Lady Trent’s many adventures (several of which are alluringly hinted at throughout this book) in that there are several interesting locales to explore.

Yet in a lot of ways, this is a quiet book – at its heart it’s basically an ode to Isabella’s absolute fascination with Dragons, so yes, it does involve a fair bit of rumination on biology, which is rather adorable on the one hand, and yet rather dry on the other. This is not a story of Here Be Dragons; of Indiana Jones style adventure – rather it’s a story of academic, scientific discovery, which involves many a scene of looking at bones, and puzzling over behaviors and so on and so forth. Now being a nerd myself, I found plenty to enjoy – I massively enjoyed how aptly Brennan nailed the world of academia, in every sense, from the practical difficulties of fieldwork to the politics of standing/respect in the field, to how even blindingly intelligent people can have glaring blind spots of ignorance, it all just rang so wonderfully true. Not to mention I loved the culture clashes between Isabella and the “rustic” people of the village she finds herself in, and how her internal sighing and gentle condescension concerning the impropriety of it all unwittingly exposed her utter naivete. Suffice to say, I had no trouble turning the pages – but honestly I can see how this book might not be everyone’s cup of tea.

As for the plot, well, as I’ve implied, it’s more of a gentle stroll than a mad dash. Yes, there is a bit of a mystery, and dramatic happenings do occur, but really this is a gentle travelogue, not an action/adventure serial. I was easily interested enough to watch it all play out – though there was one plot point that kind of had me raising a dubious eyebrow – so yes, the plot does all work. I just have to say that I never once thought of the plot as one of the stronger points of this story.

For me, without doubt the strongest point of this story was the voice and character of Lady Trent herself – but I also have to say this: I did at times find myself wishing for a bit more cleverness, a bit more spark of humor, about Lady Trent’s narration. She was droll at times, to be sure, and I enjoyed how she often rolled her figurative eyes at her younger self (the novel is written in memoir form, by a much older Lady Trent) but mostly Isabella comes across as very factual and very intellectual, which brings at times a bit of remoteness to her narration. I think I was looking for humor as a way to close that gap – though also, admittedly I’ve been rather spoiled by Jane Austen, Gail Carriger and the like, and yes, this is a hugely subjective response, but still, there it is.

Still, in the end, while this book may be too dry and studious for some, I did indeed enjoy reading it – and I’ll even call it rather adorable. So yes, without doubt I am looking forward to the next Lady Trent adventure.

Byrt Grade: A-

As Levar Burton used to say – you don’t have to take my word for it…

Publishers Weekly (starred review) says:

Isabella’s life is genuinely complicated by her scientific leanings, yet she perseveres with perfectly period-accurate spirit and awareness of the risks and costs. Brennan’s world-building is wonderfully subtle, rendering a familiar land alien with casual details. Fans of fantasy, science, and history will adore this rich and absorbing tale of discovery.

Liz Bourke at Tor.com says:

I enjoyed this book a hell of a lot, but it’s not perfect…But if I’m honest, I’d forgive far more flaws than this in order to read about Isabella’s adventures. In fact, for a character this interesting with a voice this engaging? I could forgive almost anything.

Kirkus Reviews says:

Told in the style of a Victorian memoir, courageous, intelligent and determined Isabella’s account is colorful, vigorous and absorbing. A sort of Victorian why-what-whodunit embellished by Brennan’s singular upgrade of a fantasy bromide and revitalizingly different viewpoint.