Marie Brennan's alternate Europe seen in A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent, follows a young Victorian girl who has become obsessed with dragons. Writing at the end of a long life, she has begun to write her memoirs about her life's work and adventures: the study of the mythical beasts. In this presumably first volume of many, Isabella journeys to Eastern Europe on her first expedition.
In Scirland (England) a young Isabella is fascinated at an early age by Sparklings, tiny dragon-like creatures as common as birds, eventually preserving one in a jar of vinegar. This ignites a passion within her and sets her on a path of scientific exploration. A favored book is ‘A Natural History of Dragons‘, purchased by her father for his library, read over and over again throughout her childhood. Like our own Victorian era at the end of the 1800s, women faced a far more limited existence in society, confined to a regimented social life, and such curiosity is actively discouraged, a major factor that frustrates Isabella throughout the novel.
As a child, her interest with a visit by a drake on her family’s property which brings her face to face with one of the beasts. She grows out of her obsessive streak for years after her encounter, but eventually meets and marries Jacob, a man of some status, and their shared interest rekindles her curiosity. Her father, during the vetting process, ensured that her suitors were in possession of a library of their own, and as a bonus, Jacob happens to own a copy of ‘A Natural History of Dragons’. Isabella and Jacob, a somewhat happily married couple, are unconventional for their time: she’s strong willed, while he tries to keep up. Shortly after their marriage, they meet a notable explorer and citizen-scientist Lord Hilford and are invited along on an expedition to Vystrana (really, the Balkans or somewhere nearby in Eastern Europe), where they’re to study the dragons of the region. There, they find a bit more than they’re expecting.
A Natural History of Dragons is an interesting book with a lopsided structure that will undoubtedly smooth out if another adventure is written about Lady Trent. There’s clearly an episodic nature here, and it’s frustrating at points to see references to other, untold adventures, where there’s clearly the intention to write more later, rather than simply allowing the book to rest on its obvious strengths. The story also has less to do with dragons than I anticipated going into this read: while they’re a central focus of the plot, they’re seen only sparingly, while during the second half of the novel, a subplot with smugglers and local politics is the main driver of the story.
Setting the novel up as a fictional memoir out of the Victorian era is an interesting choice. Steampunk has been an immensely popular subgenre of late, and while this doesn’t have any overt steampunk features, it’s a good example of fiction looking back into the past for inspiration. It’s a particularly well-timed novel, as it features a female protagonist who’s cutting against the cultural grain in a time where women were expected to hold to a certain model. Reading this as the Violence Against Women Act was renewed by the United States Congress is a pertinent reminder that the role women play in speculative fiction is a highly relevant one, and it’s fantastic to read a story led by the strong-willed Isaella, who’s armed with her wits and intelligence to both conduct research and solve a mystery. A Natural History of Dragons harkens back to the era of Science Romances, science fiction written during a time when there was much unknown about the world, before blank points on the maps had been filled. It lends much to the style of stories from Jules Verne and Arthur Conan Doyle, with a real modern sensibility. While the story is ostensibly a fantasy, it has the heart of a science fiction novel, in the spirit of exploration and scientific endeavor.
Finally, an added element to A Natural History of Dragons is the artwork. Drawn up by Todd Lockwood, who’s known for his distinctive dragons, this novel has one of the more striking covers to grace the front of a novel in recent years. In addition to that, there are a number of illustrations throughout the book’s pages, presumably drawn by Lady Trent. It’s an added touch to the story and the entire packaged product. In my opinion, the cover alone makes the price of admission worth it.
A Natural History of Dragons is at its heart, a nostalgic book: there’s adventure to be had, with a cast of characters out to find adventure and knowledge at all ends of the Earth. It reminds me much of such stories as Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth and Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, where science and exploration were the central focus and it’s a good viewpoint to have. At the end of the day, Brennan’s novel is a fun read, and I’m hopeful that more adventures of Lady Trent are forthcoming.