Review: Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons

I’ve been behind on my reading goal this year, and this time around I’ve made it intentionally low.  But now that snowbirds are moving back home, work is slowing down and I’ve finished my first playthrough of a certain video game,I’m ready to get back on track.

This review will contain some spoilers of varying degrees.

A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan at first feels like a throwback to the standard “rebellious highborn girl/princess” trope.  It follows the early life of Isabella, who was born into a respectable family with all expectations of snaring an equally or more respectable husband, running his household, and having children.  But all Isabella wants to do is read and study dragons, which is frowned upon in a society that seems to imitate a less religious and more academic version of Victorian England.

I was fond of this type of character when I was younger, seeing it often in characters like Princess Cimorene in the Enchanted Forest Chronicles.  But the trouble with characters like this is that they can become unrealistically rebellious.  They single-mindedly pursue their own desires, thinking that they’ll be happier if everyone else let them be, failing to realize that life and the realities of their world rarely work out that way.  Brennan takes a refreshing and more mature approach to this trope, with Isabella realizing that shirking the expectations of her society in favor of her academic pursuits wouldn’t make for a good life in the long term.  Her aim then is to work toward a compromise between her interests and the expectations of a woman of her class.  This theme is played with throughout the rest of the story, where she alternates between scholarly fascination for her work and the snobbish attitude common of highborn women.

It isn’t until the second half of the book, when Isabella and her husband Jacob Camherst join an expedition into a rural colony to study dragons, that another theme of extreme class differences becomes prominent.  The country in which the expedition takes place is the colony of a greater power with a vastly different culture and customs, and no respect toward the locals.  The mutual hostility between colonial power and colonized is almost palpable, and Isabella’s stay in this village opens her eyes to the lifestyles of those of lower birth.  It leaves her with some guilt when she realizes that the people she once looked down upon are still people and worthy of more respect than she gave, and she makes an honorable effort to make amends.  And in perfectly realistic fashion, her attempts aren’t wholly successful: while the locals went from open hostility toward her and her party to what she describes as a “grudging neutrality,” she couldn’t hope to undo years of exploitation from their wealthy foreign overlords.

What stood out most in this story is the realistic way in which the author tackled these common tropes.  While some rebellious young ladies would have run off with the stableboy, Isabella tried instead to find a place in her given society in which she could feel comfortable.  The culture shock she received during her expedition only humbled her.  She didn’t become an immediate hero by the end of the book, but she made a difference which opened the door to continued expeditions and academic pursuits.

I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, as Isabella’s path to becoming the legendary dragon naturalist Lady Trent is far from over.

2 thoughts on “Review: Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons

  1. Good review – nicely balanced and gave me a good idea of what to expect in the story – might be useful to indicate the genre though for potential readers – I wasn’t sure if this was mock history/romance/adventure or just fantasy (because of the dragons).

    1. Thanks for commenting and that piece of advice! The genre did slip my mind – this is a fantasy novel, written as a fictional autobiography.

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