I don’t review books very often anymore. I could politely lie and say it’s because the life of a published author is busy, but my Youtube history would soundly refute that statement.
The truth of it is that I haven’t read many books of late that have given me the desire to take to the streets to shout of their wonder. Some might say I’m jaded, others would say I’m picky. I prefer to think I’m a bit of a dick.
But in recent months, I picked up a copy of A NATURAL HISTORY OF DRAGONS by Marie Brennan at a local book-dealer of mine. Drawn in by the cover:
And had that lovely feeling of the fishhook being jerked and set by the back-of-the-book blurb. A naturalist recalling tales of their youth studying dragons? Okay, Miss Brennan. Let’s take this ride.
I was pleasantly surprised by this book on many levels.
First, the obvious. Dragons. But these are not your Draco, Elliot, Smaug, or any of the number of personified and emotive dragons that you’ll find in tales today. These are more akin to Reign of Fire. Dragons set forth not by magic, but by science. For some, this might be a deal-breaker, but for me, it was a necessity. Given the selling point of the book, I wanted a scientist not a witch or wizard to introduce me to the scaly wonders.
Which leads me directly to our narrator. The book is written as a memoir of sorts of Isabella, Lady Trent, the world’s foremost authority on dragon knowledge. She tells the tale of her youth with the clarity and snap of a finely aged woman. The thought of reading a memoir or autobiography had me skeptical. Brennan blew me away, though, as it reads with such voice and veracity that you might think you are reading the thoughts of a real-world naturalist. One with a razor wit, no less.
What I think might have really sold the book for me in the end is that the story takes place in a world much like Victorian England. This is important because while a female scientist today is an admirable though shruggable revelation, having your character pursue a career in science in the world of gentry and husband-hunting is a dangerous game. The author runs of the risk of either eventually bending to society’s will or having the protagonists efforts be so extreme as to be unbelievable. Then of course, you could have the story piss away the potential for a very real message of feminism and a genuinely mold-breaking character.
Brennan not only dodge these pitfalls, she dynamites them on her way by.
Isabella’s struggles are real and the reader can’t help but be empathetic to her troubles as she grows up being fascinated by the natural world but having her hand slapped down each time she tries to expand her world and the world of everyone else. But she’s persistent, she’s enthusiastic (dangerously so…), and above all she’s goddamn reasonable. She wants to study scholarly topics like her male peers. Why the hell shouldn’t she be allowed to do so? She doesn’t want to best them or prove that she’s just as smart.
She just wants to learn.
Is there romance in here? Sure. Does our lovely protagonist occasionally act as a socially elite snob might? Absolutely. Frequently. But these things only serve to cement the character as dynamic, believable, and relatable. You’ll root for her the whole way because, hell, you wish you could be as genuine as she is.
And of course. The Dragons. There are a-plenty in here and they prove to be as interesting as Isabella herself because as she learns about them, you do as well. The world you’re entering knows as much about dragons as you do—nothing. So you truly feel as though you are right beside Isabella, writing her notes in the mountains mere hours after observing the flying beasts.
I’ve already got the sequel sitting on my bookshelf begging to be read. Were it not for another book crawling into my thinkspace, I’d probably tackle it right now. But alas, you’ll have to wait to see if lightning indeed strikes twice.
For folks who may have read my blog in the past, you’ll know you won’t find a star rating here. I either recommend a book or I don’t. I don’t bother telling you about books I didn’t enjoy because who has that kind of time? I also don’t tell you about books I didn’t thoroughly enjoy because I did plenty of book reports as a kid—I don’t fancy going back there.
But, then again…if I were to give A NATURAL HISTORY OF DRAGONS a star rating, you could imagine that out of 5 it’d be very difficult for me to not use all the fingers on my hand to score it…