Tuesday, November 10, 2015

A Natural History of Dragons

Marie Brennan
Completed 9/30/2015, Reviewed 10/1/2015
4 stars

I first took notice of this book because of the title.  But I was a little worried about it being heavy on biology fiction.  Not to fear, this book is sort of a cross between a mystery and an autobiography of a scientist.  It tells the tale of a Victorian-like-era woman enamored with dragons, who becomes one of the most foremost authorities on the subject.  On her first expedition, she uncovers a mystery of a recent spate of dragon attacks, as she bucks the prejudice against women in science.  The book is a delightful read, told in style that almost reminded me of PBS British period series.

Isabella, the future Lady Trent, is a great character and narrator.  Writing as the old and acclaimed dragon scientist, she tells the tale of how she came to be infatuated with them.  She also gives us great insight on the problems she faces in a society where women are for marrying, not thinking.  Her parents worry how she’ll find a husband while she worries how she’ll be able to get up close and personal with dragons.  Fortunately, she meets a man who loves her because she is intelligent and curious, and he likes dragons too.  Soon they meet an explorer who’s willing to take them on an expedition and the rest is history, well, an alternate history anyway.

I should note that the book is pure fantasy in that there are fictional continents, countries, and religions.  However, because it has a Victorian sensibility, if feels more like an alternate history.  Looking closely at the map the author provides at the beginning of the book, one sees not just a made up world, but almost an extrapolation of Europe and western Russia if our continents drifted and collided a little differently.  The religions sound a little like Christendom and the pagan hinterlands.  And there are boyars and a tsar, even though there is no Russia.  The net effect is that the whole construct makes the reader very comfortable even though it is a very different world.

The prose is wonderful.  It’s the sort of book that begs to be read with a British accent in your head.  Because it is an autobiography of the narrator, there’s wonderful asides and commentary throughout the story.  The feel and tone of the book reminded me of “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell”, but warmer than the pseudo-documentary form.

I give this book four stars out of five.  I keep using the term warm, which is funny because much of it takes place in the cold mountains of a Russia-like country.  But it’s the best work I can think of to describe the place this book took me.  If it had been a bit colder out, I would have enjoyed reading this under a quilt with some hot cocoa.  

No comments:

Post a Comment