|Note: I originally posted the below review on Goodreads. It has only been lightly altered here.
Encountering Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons was a happy accident. I read a review of the novel on io9 several months or years back and promptly forgot about it. Then, in preparation for a day trip, I came across the ebook at a heavily discounted price and decided it might be a fun diversion. It proved to be far more than that. I devoured the book in my free time, first on a Friday car ride and then over the course of a lazy Sunday afternoon. Especially during the car ride, when my wife was a captive audience member, I would read particularly clever or gripping passages aloud. And I laughed aloud, frequently–Marie Brennan has a knack for funny asides. This book is narrated with such a rich voice, that of the fictitious Lady Trent as she recounts the events of her life, that it’s almost hard to believe that she’s not a real person.
I absolutely loved this book and look forward to future opportunities to read the later books in this series and other writings of Ms. Brennan.
A short synopsis: Isabella, Lady Trent, is now an older woman who retells the story of her misadventures as a great natural historian who specialized in and largely developed the study of dragons. The book imitates the form and conventions of a Victorian novel, and it is set in a parallel, similar-yet-alien world where dragons are real. The initial chapters are a coming-of-age tale and courtly romance, but it quickly blossoms further into an exciting fantasy adventure and climaxes with the investigation and revelation of certain dark conspiracies. The book shifts between and blends genres beautifully–bildungsroman, faux memoir, fantasy, classic adventure story, mystery, and so on. Furthermore, Brennan’s anthropology background is evident in her ability to effectively develop and clearly convey fantasy cultures that are similar to recognizable nineteenth-century cultures from our own world. Plus, she explores issues of historical and contemporary sexism and classism and highlights concerns about technological development and destruction of the natural environment, all while taking a scientific approach to the depiction of dragons.
Shockingly, in a fantasy adventure book, the most affecting and effective narrative might in fact have been the courtship and sweet friendship between Isabella and her husband Jacob. This relationship is complicated and real and not a simple romance, and I could say a lot more about it but would rather that you simply read the book if you have not done so already. It’s not a knock on the adventure elements; I was just impressed by the human core of the book (for that matter, Isabella’s relationships with her father, her mentor, her scientific rival, and her local maid while overseas are all excellent and complicated).
Reading this book felt a bit like if Jane Austen and H. Rider Haggard and Bram Stoker and Ursula K. Le Guin and Arthur Conan Doyle were all combined into a single authorial entity. That might sound messy–just like the premise of this book might sound a little messy or pulp–but it works out really, really well.
I would highly recommend this novel. A Natural History of Dragons has overnight become one of my favorite books and a high point, to me at least, in contemporary fantasy.