My rating: 4 stars
A Natural History of Dragons, the first book in The Memoirs of Lady Trent series by Marie Brennan, is a fantasy and adventure story with prominent scientific and anthropological strands. Throughout the novel, many remarks are made about how difficult it was for a woman to be truly accepted by the scientific community. Even though the story takes place in a fictional world, it highly resembles our own some centuries ago, just with dragons flying in the sky.
Lady Trent tells in the first person the story of how she became a famous and respected dragon naturalist. Isabella was the only daughter in a set of six children and wasn’t known for her ladylike ways. She first became obsessed with all animals with wings. Her special interest in dragons began while reading the book ‘A Natural History of Dragons’ by Sir Richard Edgeworth.
Her first reckless adventure took place still in Scirland, where she was born and grew up, when she was 14 years old. Dressed as a boy, she managed to take part in the hunt for a wolf-drake, because she wanted to see it alive and not already dead. From the beginning of the story, we realise that she has always been adventurous, curious, intelligent, a little reckless, but kind-hearted.
Despite trying to break free from what was expected of women, she was compelled to seek a husband. The way her introduction to society is presented remembered me of the Jane Austen’s novels, but featuring a girl with a passion for dragons as the heroine.
“The hunt for spouses is an activity on par with fox-hunting, though the weapons and dramatis personae differ. Just as grizzled old men know the habits of hares and quail, so do elegant society gossips know every titbit about the year’s eligible men and women.”
Adventure and science were not seen as activities appropriate for women. Ladies were supposed to engage in pointless conversations, draw and play instruments. However, there are some people, like Jacob Camherst, who understand Isabella’s desire to know more about the natural world and how that knowledge makes her happy.
“I wanted to stretch the wings of my mind and see how far I could fly.”
Thanks to the people who grasped the importance that dragons had to her, she went on her first expedition to the mountains of Vystrania when she was 19 years old. There she had to face more than dragons, though.
Contrary to what happens in other fantasy books, dragons are not portrayed as mythological creatures or animals whose main purpose is to be ridden by humans. Instead they are animals that roam free and are scientifically studied. The legitimacy of killing animals for scientific purposes is questioned and discussed in that context.
The tender moments shared by some of the characters were my favourite feature of A Natural History of Dragons. I loved the relationship between Isabella and her father, who didn’t openly encourage her interest in dragons, although in his heart he completely understood it. And there is another affectionate relationship that warmed my heart and almost made me cry, but delving into it would get me dangerously close to revealing too much about the plot.
The writing style is engaging, witty and sometimes quite funny. Despite not being overly descriptive, it’s extremely easy to picture the scenes. It sometimes feels like Isabella’s emotions regarding dragons are too constrained, but that is a realistic consequence of her being a scientist and be writing her memoir as such.
Midway through the book, it feels like we are being told about some of the events for the single reason that they happened in Isabella’s life and not because they are important for the development of the plot. And although by the end the importance of those actions are quite clear, I still have the feeling that the story lost a bit of impetus for a moment. In one of the chapters, there are also too many references to the weather typical of the location they are in, which felt repetitive.
Throughout A Natural History of Dragons, we are led to think that what is acceptable for a woman to get involved in changes as she starts to be known in her field of work. I really want to continue reading The Memoirs of Lady Trent series and see if that was what actually happened to Isabella.