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Book Review: A Natural History Of Dragons

A Memoir By Lady Trent written by Marie Brennan
Published by Titan Books

Marie Brennan, the pseudonym of Bryn Neuenschwander, is an American fantasy author who graduated from Harvard University and did graduate studies in folklore and anthropology. This means she is smart and has an affinity with science and mythology, and she brings a naturalness and clarity to her writing in this utterly charming book, about a young lady following her scientific passion for dragons despite the social etiquette of the time, reflecting on her first adventure on the road to becoming the preeminent dragon naturalist.

Isabella is the only daughter of six children of Lord and Lady Hendemore, of Norringale in Tamshire. When she is 7 years old, she finds a sparkling in the grounds of their estate – thought to be an insect with dragon-like features – but actually a small dragon. It collapses into dust when it dies but, when told by the cook that pickling in vinegar is the answer, her obsession with dragons begins in earnest, helped by the original book called A Natural History Of Dragons by Sir Richard Edgeworth, the indispensable guide of the time (although completed with information from correspondence with traders and missionaries). She is 14 years old when she sees a dragon for the first time, not escaping the incident without injury, meaning that she must put away her dragon obsession; however, she funnels her energy into sketching animals and studying them, which becomes important later on.

At 16, Isabella is taken to the city of Falchester to be introduced into society, but her favourite brother Andrew gets them into the king’s menagerie where, accompanied by the king’s naturalist, they are given a tour that ends up in the prize: three live dragons. She also meets Jacob Camherst, second son of a baronet (who is on the list of suitable eligible suitors provided by her father who realises that while she might not find a husband who would buy her a library, she might find one who would share a library), who shares an interest in dragons, which leads to a marriage. After she unfortunately miscarries, Jacob rekindles her interest in sparklings, which leads to a meeting with Maxwell Oscott, Earl of Hilford, who is about to go on an expedition to Vystrana to see dragons … So, at the age of 19 years old, Isabella accompanies her husband and the earl on the steamship Magnolia, in a time before railways and fast ships, visiting a foreign country (her first book was A Journey To The Mountains Of Vystrana, a travel guide of the trip, an acceptable pursuit for a young lady at that time), arriving in the village of Drustanev, which would be their base of operations for their adventures.

This story is set in a world different from ours (the country in which Isabella lives is Scirland, but with similarities to England, such as references to chilly fog; the names of other countries are quite alien: Chiavora, Akhia, Bulskevo, Eiverheim, Mrtyahaimas; there are even different months, such as Floris, Graminis, Messis) but the setting is very similar to a Victorian time, with all the rules of social etiquette and patriarchal hierarchy that implies (Lady Trent writes an aside about her editor fretting when she mentions that, when she was a teenager, she was able to disguise herself as a boy to go on a hunt for a wolf-drake with her father’s hunting party because she had not much in the way of ‘hips and breasts’).

The book is written in the style of a book from that time, with all the language associated – there is a lovely use of the word ‘crepuscular’, and dragon bones becoming ‘rapidly frangible postmortem’, and delightful turns of phrase such as ‘take care of a certain biological matter’ as a euphemism for urinating. It is a memoir of an older and famous woman who is reflecting on her youth, which is distant and she has written about before but not in such detail and honesty – she doesn’t care what people think any more. It is a very well written book, acting as an introduction to the world of dragons, as well as to this other world that Brennan has created – there is the Egyptian-like pre-history of the Draconean culture (dragon-headed gods at temples) with an indecipherable written language; there are the mentions of religions, with Vystrana a land of Temple-worshippers and Scirland full of ‘proper followers of the Magisterial path’. It’s a delightful book, accompanied with beautiful charcoal sketches of various dragons observed during the story (done by Todd Lockwood, who also did the amazing cover), and an absorbing introduction to this world of dragons and Lady Isabella Trent. I can’t wait for the next book.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

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