Stella Matutina
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A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent, by Marie Brennan 
7th-Feb-2013 07:00 am
cover art for A Natural History of Dragons, featuring a grey and red illustration of a walking dragon with the flesh stripped from its wings and hindquarters to show the muscle below. The background is whiteTitle: A NATURAL HISTORY OF DRAGONS: A MEMOIR BY LADY TRENT
Author: Marie Brennan
Illustrator: Todd Lockwood
Series: this is the first of Lady Trent’s memoirs
Publisher: Tor
Publication Date: 5 February 2013
Pages: 336
Status: electronic (ARC)

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Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley. Illustrations courtesy of Tor's publicity department.

A NATURAL HISTORY OF DRAGONS is the first in a series of memoirs by Isabella, Lady Trent, as recorded by Marie Brennan and illustrated by Todd Lockwood. This premiere volume deals with the famed dragon naturalist’s early life, including her first foray into fieldwork.

I love Brennan’s Onyx Court series, so I couldn’t wait to tackle this new offering. While it’s still a solid read, I would caution other Onyx Court fans to expect a beast of a different sort. Isabella’s memoirs are much smaller in scale, with a more linear narrative structure and a decidedly personal approach. The focus rests firmly on Isabella’s own life, and her explorations into How Things Work. The larger issues revolve around who she is and how she fits into this world.

Said world is similar to early Victorian England. Isabella is born into an affluent family in a society where respectable women are meant to be showpieces. They must marry, and once they’ve done so they’re responsible for little more than organizing their husbands’ home lives.

This isn’t enough for Isabella. She’s been interested in natural science since she was very young, but her country’s sense of propriety limits her. She can read scientific publications only if her husband will purchase them for her, and she can’t discuss them with anyone else without being considered strange and unnatural. While she’s lucky enough to marry a man who can be a friend and conversation partner, her ultimate goals remain difficult to achieve. Much of the book’s tension springs from whom Isabella is versus what society would have her be.

Pencil drawing of a very small, crested dragon with its right wing spread wide.
Sparkling by Todd Lockwood


Isabella, for all her intellect, is dependent on her husband. She must wait for his permission to pursue even so so small a goal as studying sparklings in her backyard--and Scirland’s social mores insist that he is a terrible, horrible cad if he "allows" her to explore natural science. The reader, of course, hopes he will be a cad; that he’ll support Isabella no matter how unconventional her aspirations. And of course, his desire to treat his wife well wins out over the threat of social censure, as there would be no story otherwise.

Brennan never downplays the problematic angle to this setup. Instead, she emphasizes the ways women like Isabella work within the system to make something different of their lives. Isabella’s struggle to reconcile who she is with her country’s sense of propriety reminded me of Rachel Hartman’s AMY UNBOUNDED, another book where women in a male-dominated sphere nonetheless carve themselves a welcoming space, with varying degrees of success. Isabella can’t tackle her goals the same way a man would. She has to exploit any and all loopholes the system gives her, grasping at chances as they come; however, she’s still so young that I’m not sure she quite realizes she’s doing it. She treats the expedition at the novel’s core as her one chance to study dragons. It’s not until almost the end that she realizes she could make this a regular thing.

The novel is narrated by an elderly Isabella whose life experience informs her commentary on these long-ago events. Given that she’s enjoyed great professional success, I have every hope that future installments in the series will show a shift in Scirland’s attitudes towards women, perhaps spurred on by Isabella herself. You'd better believe I love the thought of a fantasy series that deals with the way attitudes change over an extended period.

I very much enjoyed considering Brennan’s approach to gender, but I’m afraid I wasn’t quite so enamoured of the plot. While its linear approach isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it did leave me less to chew over, story-wise. The overarching stakes (ie, Isabella’s future happiness) may be high, but the plot’s driving force centers on a relatively simple mystery to which I felt little connection. I often found myself focusing on the social issues and the gorgeous, period-appropriate prose to such an extent that I lost the thread of the story. I was interested, but I’m afraid I can’t say I was gripped. I stuck with the book mostly because I’ve loved Brennan’s past work.

In the end, though, I’m glad I finished. I did like Isabella very much, and the conclusion was sufficiently enticing that I’ll certainly read the sequel. I look forward to watching Isabella take her next step on the road to becoming a famed naturalist.

3 stars – liked it

Other Reviews:

Ageless Pages Reviews
BookYurt
Liz Bourke for Tor.com
Only the Best Sci-Fi/Fantasy

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Comments 
8th-Feb-2013 12:25 am (UTC)
I choose to be excited about this book in spite of your reservations about the plot! I didn't realize until a couple of days ago that Brennan had a new book coming out, and I luuuurv this title. Definitely excited to read this and the sequels when they come out.
12th-Feb-2013 10:34 pm (UTC)
I think there's an excellent chance you'll love this! It's got tons of great stuff about dragon anatomy and feminism.
14th-Feb-2013 12:56 am (UTC)
I love anatomy and feminism! I love them!
17th-Feb-2013 12:53 pm (UTC)
You didn't mention the dragon part! lol What about the dragons???? that's what interests me. Why do so many books put dragons and Victorian society (whether historical, steampunk or some other variety) together? Is it because women were allowed some learning and if daring, could explore the world, then?

I'll give this book a go if I can find it here - our library is interesting in its selection of new books! - and see how the dragons are :-) and if Isabella is irritating or not. Thanks for the review, Memory :-)

Susan - You Can Never Have Too Many Books
19th-Feb-2013 05:32 pm (UTC)
The dragons are mostly a tool for Isabella to realize her unconventional aspirations. They're animals, rather than characters in their own right, so I'd say they're interesting, but far from the most compelling part of the book.
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