Note: A copy of this book was provided by the publisher. It will be available for purchase tomorrow, February 5, 2013.
Completely unlike her previously published novels, Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons is the memoir of Isabella, Lady Trent. Isabella is gently born and has been brought up to be a proper young lady–there’s only one wrinkle in this: Isabella is dragon-mad and is more than willing to cast propriety to the wind when it comes to them.
This volume covers only the years leading up to Isabella’s marriage to Jacob Camherst and an expedition they undertook to the isolated country of Vystrana in order to observe and catalog the rock-wyrms there.
This is, more or less, a story about a bunch of clueless people stumbling into something they had no business sticking their noses into and thinking they’re in some sort of position to do something about it.
Honestly, it reminded me a bit of Transylvania 6-5000 but without the slapstick humor and Jeff Goldblum. (Lest anyone think that’s an insult: I like Transylvania 6-5000.)
Isabella’s voice is with years of hindsight, deprecating and engaging–she is well aware of all the mistakes she and her companions made on this trip but she’s honest enough to not minimize any of them. However, the villagers still come across as a bit backwards and stupid and I’m not sure that was Brennan’s intent here–she’s almost too subtle in how she’s trying to turn this type of story inside out.
The worldbuilding is thorough and really interesting–the dragons are sufficiently mysterious and vicious as well has having a motivation which is tied into the goings-on in the village. Another thing that I really liked was that while this is an alternate European setting, there are enough clues to figure out what the basis for the alternate history is–it’s a setting based on Judaism, not Christianity. Many of the proper names are of the Old Testament variety and the descriptions of the differences between the Scirlish feligious observance and the Vystrani makes it clear that there’s an Orthodox/Conservative thing going on (I am not well-versed enough in Judaism to really talk about this in more detail). I found this to be utterly fascinating, though, and pretty unusual for the genre.
So anyhow, this is a really charming and light-ish read and I enjoyed it tremendously. I’ve been trying to think of books to compare it to and I keep coming back to Mary Robinette Kowal’s books, which are Regency-style fantasies in an alternate history where magic works but is generally seen as women’s work (except when it’s not). Isabella’s struggle to be recognized as a scholar is, in many ways, similar to Jane’s struggle and there are certain degrees of similarity in the settings, too.