Publication Date: 5 February 2013
Publisher: Tor Books
Summary: 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.
Marie Brennan introduces an enchanting new world in A Natural History of Dragons.
…I find is a very apt summary of this book. The story is told as a narrative of now-famous dragon naturalist Isabella Trent as she recounts her childhood and her first expedition at 19-years old, attempting to pursue passions considered unthinkable for women of her era.
Unlike many of the reviews I’ve read, I actually preferred the scientific discovery half of the book to the mystery plot that was introduced halfway. Frankly, I thought the mystery plot was somewhat dry and forgetful. I barely knew the names of the characters that weren’t Isabella & Co. + her maid. When the story began switching from dragon science to mystery, I found myself thinking ‘get back to the dragons damn it’ more often than I would have liked, which made me knock down one star. However, the climax of the mystery plot had me close to tears, redeeming the story half a star. Overall, there was less dragon science in this book than I would have preferred, but hopefully, that will change with the rest of the series.
One of the strong points of this book was Lady Trent herself. Older and more experienced, she adds insight and snark to her narration that really makes the story enjoyable. There’s a feeling of ‘I’m old and famous now, I say what I want’ that really comes out whenever she criticizes the ridiculousness of the pseudo-Victorian expectations of women and how they conflict with her activities in the field. Her actions as a 19-year-old given a once-in-a-lifetime chance to study dragons (DRAGONS!) up close in the field are believable and relatable. Her enthusiasm and determinance to be found useful by her male compatriots get her into some crazy situations and I found myself admiring her bravery.
I also loved her husband Jacob. Thinking in context of the time period, it was already applaudable that he would even let her join the expedition. Beyond his actions, I loved the relationship that developed between him and Isabella. In her narration, Lady Trent makes it very clear they did not marry out of love, but convenience (her for his library, him for a decent conversation partner). Yet they develop a close friendship even before the expedition starts and their private interactions are so, so cute. Even as they hide in a rocky outcrop to sight dragons, they trade intimate reassurances. It was clear that at some point, they did fall in love with each other.
Finally, as a woman in engineering, I found this book incredibly relatable. While I don’t have to endure nearly as strong a stigma as Isabella does, there were moments in the book that hit a little too close to home. When Wilker goes on his tirades against Isabella, I could feel myself cringing because I’d experience something similar. In the concluding scene with Lord Hilford, I almost cried. Barely two weeks prior to reading this, I’d parted ways with a professor I’d worked for over the summer, and this scene reminded me so much of that moment.
All in all, this book was a quick and highly enjoyable read and I rate it a 4.5/5. It was refreshing to see science used as a central plot point of a book and I look forward to reading the rest of the series.