Sunday, 3 March 2013

A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan

You, dear reader, continue at your own risk. It is not for the faint of heart—no more so than the study of dragons itself. But such study offers rewards beyond compare: to stand in a dragon’s presence, even for the briefest of moments—even at the risk of one’s life—is a delight that, once experienced, can never be forgotten. . . . 

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.

The first thing that grabbed me about this book was how quickly and firmly Brennan finds Lady Isabella Trent's voice. Straight from the off I was confident that the narrative would be smooth and consistent. Set in an early Victorian style era Lady Trent takes us back to her childhood in her parents estate, and we're exposed to her first dragon encounter (even if it is the dragonfly sized Sparkling). We're left in no doubt that this is a memoir, with glorious little asides to the reader who is of course aware of the full legend of Lady Trent.

Throughout the book Isabella's natural curiosity is hindered by her gender, it simply isn't seemly for a young lady to be intellectual or aspirational. Though initially resistant to this a nasty incident turns her, at least on the outside, quite docile.

We then follow Isabella through a brief courtship and to her marriage (to my favourite character in the book thanks to his loving nature). Isabella is given some reign by her husband and our budding natural historian is set free. The bulk of the story takes part in a country very reminiscent of eastern Europe where out heroine faces challenges of both a personal and professional nature.

I would best describe this book as 'Fantasy-lite'. Brennan takes the most iconic, fantastical creature in the genre and strips it of mystiscm, literally peeling back the layers to study the flesh and bones beneath. The dragons become a fascinating case study and you actually believe they could have existed in our world. There are hints and teases about deeper secrets of the beautiful creatures, but I'm left wondering if they could have been a little more in the way of revelation in this portion of the memoirs.

Isabella becomes a wonderfully well realised character, and she is very engaging and easy to read. Brennan does a commendable job of making the memoir very scientific in nature to compliment her star, but keeping the action moving and not alienating the less academic reader. You can sense her stifling frustration and extreme eagerness with the remote possibility of dragons. You feel her regret and guilt over some of her actions and her growing love of her husband, Jacob.

I really think this book could appeal to fans of character drama, not just fans of fantasy. I was a little disappointed by the lack of the unknown and mysterious, but Brennan's writing style more than made up for this and I found I was eager to read more.

About the reviewer:
Alex can be found in the rolling hills of Oxfordshire, splitting his time unevenly between fighting crime and raising two little boys (which is surprisingly similar). When he does find a spare moment he crams it full of fantasy or basketball, and due to rapidly ageing knees it's mostly fantasy these days. He's trying to learn the writing craft through sheer bloody mindedness and dreams of the day he has to do nothing else. If you're so inclined you can watch him stalk writers on Twitter - @shep5377

No comments: