The first book in my year of female writers is the light science fiction novel A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan. It is the first in a series of fictional memoirs about Lady Trent, the foremost dragon expert in the world.
The story is set in Scirland, a fictional location similar to Victorian England. Young Isabella, who is currently known to the world as Lady Trent, is a strong-willed girl with an interest in dragons. She begins collecting small dragon samples and secretly yearns to learn more about the creatures. Keeping her interests away from her mother, Isabella convinces her brother and father to slip her science books to read in between music lessons and schoolwork. Luckily, she finds a husband who allows her the freedom to pursue her dragon curiosities. Life eventually takes Isabella and her husband on an expedition to study dragons in Vystrana, a country analogous to Russia. Using her vast knowledge of dragons, she discovers why the local dragons have recently started attacking the villagers while also stumbling onto a smuggling ring and a mystery with deadly consequences.
A Natural History of Dragons is a cute novel. It’s a remarkably easy read considering Brennan used a modernized version of Victorian-esque prose for Lady Trent’s voice. The story is catchy and entertaining. Some readers have complained that they wanted a tale with thousands of dragons and swordplay and extreme high-fantasy action, but this novel is more about Isabella’s rise to greatness rather than dragons. However, the information about dragons is remarkably similar to how classic Victorian-era science fiction novels discussed the supernatural. Brennan deliberately created a believable reality for dragons using our technical discoveries and conventions. Isabella and her companions use scientific discourse to describe and analyze the dragons, which gives the novel a naturalistic feel.
The most surprising (and pleasant) aspect of A Natural History of Dragons is how Isabella is driven by logic. This novel is reminiscent of Victorian novels, but most stories written about women during the 1800s were created with romantic, emotional story lines to thrill female readers. This novel allows readers to enjoy the turn-of-the-century style without the emotionally overwrought plot that revolves around a clandestine love story.
By giving Isabella a logical and rational voice, Brennan allows Isabella to comment freely on the sexist and racist standards of the Victorian culture. Of course, Lady Trent wasn’t always a cultural critic. In fact, she admits that she was deeply prejudiced against other cultures as a young woman. She comments on her earlier scientific works, saying that they harbor discriminatory terms and ideals and begs the readers’ forgiveness for her youthful biases. We see that Isabella’s actions and feelings towards the local people of Vystrana are problematic, but the saga of Lady Trent’s novels promises to show how Isabella’s travels helped her break down her preconceived notions of “uncivilized” society. I’m definitely not saying that this book should be wholly praised, because it’s slightly upsetting that we have to see Isabella’s contempt and judgmental nature towards the people of Vystrana in the first place. However, it’s comforting to know the Brennan has planted seeds for Isabella to grow in her inclusion and acceptance rather than this being another “white feminist” novel that praises a white woman for conquering sexism while trampling on “lesser” cultures.
Normally, I don’t enjoy quick, easy reads. I prefer my stories to be deeply complex. But I’m happy to say that A Natural History of Dragons was as interesting as it was entertaining. I’m incredibly excited to read the second book in the series, The Tropic of Serpents. The next installment of Lady Trent’s fictional memoirs will be released in the United States at the beginning of March 2014.