A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan
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.
Take Indiana Jones, make him into a woman, place her in Victorian England and sprinkle in some dragons and you have the perfect beginnings of an excellent adventure.
Isabella Camherst is a female Indiana Jones in a world similar to ours, but with a few notable differences: Isabella’s country is reminiscent of England during the Victorian era, the most advanced technology is steam-powered, and dragons are just another species of wildlife, if one of the more enigmatic creatures out there. Very little is known about them as a species during Isabella’s youth, and what is known is enough only to fill one leatherbound book, Sir Richard Edgeworth’s A Natural History of Dragons, a book which, despite the perplexing references to anatomy, little Isabella, who is fascinated by dragons, sneaks off her father’s shelves to read and study again and again.
Sneaking the book away is necessary because natural philosophy isn’t a subject meant to be taken up by women. Very few subjects are meant to be taken up by women, in fact: women are meant to be elegant, modest helpmeets whose pleasure is derived from serving as hostess, mother, and wife, and in partaking in properly feminine hobbies like reading novels and strolling through parks.
There isn’t anything particularly wrong with that life, other than that Isabella would die a little inside if her thirst for knowledge weren’t daily quenched in some capacity. I’m sure every scholarly person can relate to Isabella’s craving to know. While coming out to Society, she even deliberately seeks out a husband who will keep a library and support her book habit! (Don’t tell my husband about that; he might start to ask questions.) “Where knowledge is concerned,” reflects Isabella, “I am as greedy as the mythical dragons in the stories, sitting atop their glittering hoards.”
But Isabella isn’t just studious and ink-nosed; she’s adventurous, too. From going on dragon-researching expeditions to falling into smugglers’ pits in ancient ruins, Isabella’s memoirs read like a classic adventure story, but one told in the voice of a gutsy, intelligent, clever, and capable woman reflecting on her youth. She is one of those rare characters who you so desperately want to befriend that you wish you could pull them right out of the pages and make them real.
Too frequently I come across a lack of professionalism in writing — sheer laziness, really, whether in fully fleshing out characters or clearing up abundant typos. Marie Brennan, on the other hand, has considered every detail, right down to interspersing the book with Isabella’s sketches. The effort Brennan went through to perfect her book makes it shine all the more.
Between the thrilling adventure tale and the memorable Isabella, the first installment of Isabella’s memoirs earns 5 out of 5 dragon’s bones.
Cleanliness & Content Advisory: A Natural History of Dragons is intended for adults, but because it’s written like a Victorian memoir, there really is no gore, sexual content, or cursing — unless you consider words like “godsend” to be curse-words, in which case Isabella has this message for you:
To those of my readers who flinch at minor blasphemies of the sort: I must warn you that there will be more ahead. Mr. Wilker restrained his language around me in our Vystrani days, but as we grew more comfortable with one another, he revealed a casual habit of naming the Lord. If I edited his language here, it would misrepresent his character, and so I pray you pardon his frankness, and mine. We were neither of us very religious.
Aside from occasionally needing a dictionary, a young adult could easily read this book. I would give it a PG-13 rating.