Be warned, then: the collected volumes of this series will contain frozen mountains, foetid swamps, hostile foreigners, hostile fellow countrymen, the occasional hostile family member, bad decisions, misadventures in orienteering, diseases of an unromantic sort, and a plentitude of mind. You continue at your own risk. It is not for the faint of heart–no more so than the study of dragons itself.
At the age of seven, Lady Isabella Hendemore discovers a lifelong passion for natural science. Ever since her first discovery of the pint-sized sparklings that abound in her home’s gardens, Isabella has been enamored with dragons, and has devoured any books on the species she can find. There’s only one problem with Isabella’s passion for dissecting living creatures and her yearning for dragons: she is a Scirlandian noblewoman in a country where she is expected to marry and reproduce, not read scientific texts or travel to distant lands in search of majestic, dangerous beasts. Luckily, Isabella finds a husband and kindred spirit in baronet Jacob Camherst, who is similarly interested in the winged creatures (if not quite to the same degree). Thanks to her powers of persuasion, she’s able to convince Jacob to enlist in an expedition to the mountains of distant Vystrana to study rock-wyrm dragons–and she manages to get her new husband to agree to bring her along as the expedition’s secretary and artist.
In these secluded, mist-shrouded hills, Lord and Lady Camherst discover dragons behaving strangely, attacking humans (a frightening reality they face firsthand upon arriving at the village of Drustanev). There’s a mystery involving foreign smugglers, cursed ruins, and an insidious plot to drive the expedition away–but logical, dauntless Isabella is ever ready and on the case.
The latest novel from prolific fantasy author Marie Brennan, A Natural History of Dragons is an engaging and entertaining book (albeit one with some significant shortcomings–more on that in a bit). A blend of Elizabeth Peters’ formidable Amelia Peabody and a decidedly less-cuddly version of How to Train Your Dragon, this book (the first in a planned series) is mostly successful, thanks in large part to Brennan’s heroine. Narrated retrospectively by a much older Lady Isabella in memoir form, the novel’s strongest point is its witty voice and point of view. Isabella is perfectly candid and recounts her many misadventures in wryly humorous fashion–everything from her childhood dissection of a dove, to the Incident with the Wolf-Drake (a misguided adventure at the age of 14), to being captured by smugglers in the middle of the night in Drustanev whilst wearing nothing but her nightgown and robe. The novel’s plot is less focused and adventure-centric than you might expect; instead, A Natural History tends towards meandering and slow, a collection of Isabella’s early life from years 7 to 19, and her first tragic adventures.
While, overall, Isabella’s narrative sparkles with wit and verve, there are some significant stumbling points. Isabella’s whole shtick is that she is a woman who yearns to be accepted by society as a Natural Historian and dragon scholar. For, even though this book is supposedly set in a fantasy world, Scirland is an exact analog of Victorian/Edwardian England–down to the peerage, the social mores, the societal expectations, and even the dress and vernacular. And, while Isabella yearns for acceptance, she’s gratingly imperialistic, dismissive and elitist in her thoughts. This becomes jarringly clear when Isabella meets her Vystrani maidservant for the first time, describing her thusly:
She was tall and of that build we so politely call “strapping” and applaud when found in peasant folk, with strong features and a wealth of dark hair.
If I was going to have a ham-handed Vystrani woman doing up my buttons, at least it would be the ham-handed woman I knew, rather than a stranger.
What’s more, the Vystrani village people are portrayed as superstitious, uneducated peasant heathens by Isabella. Which brings me to a very significant problem–to me, personally–when it comes to A Natural History of Dragons. For all that the novel is set in a fantasy world with dragons, it seems to glorify a very real period in human history in which British Lords went to the African continent to hunt lions and elephants, and British might and imperialist views of the world dominated. And, while that is a valid romantic approach that certainly is a popular literary staple (increasingly so in the speculative fiction space), I can’t help but feel slightly appalled at the ghoulish murder of dragons, the treatment of women, and the condescending elitist mindset of the book.
The biggest question mark is the choice to set this novel in a fantasy world at all–in fantasy, you can create a world with entirely new rules, histories, and structures. So why set this novel in the fictional land of “Scirland” when it is for all intents and purposes turn-of-the-20th-century England? The fact that Isabella’s views (i.e., the superstitious peasants, the importance of good breeding, etc.) aren’t challenged is even more problematic in this light. I fail to see the point of rehashing these same backwards views in a novel that does nothing to challenge those views–instead of provoking a larger conversation about these attitudes, A Natural History of Dragons seems to idealize the period. And THAT is a problem.
Of course, the biggest problem when it comes to A Natural History of Dragons is the lack of actual dragons! The book comprises the narrated memoirs of Lady Isabella Trent as she grows up, and not so much any direct observance of or interaction with the eponymous beasts (and the only ones that Isabella comes across, she or her party try to kill–not for trophies, mind you, but for science).
Ultimately, I enjoyed the style of the book and Brennan’s skillful character narration–but by the same token, the lack of dragons and the perpetuated, dated attitudes of the book are problematic. As this is the first book in a planned series, I hope that Lady Isabella’s worldview (and attitude towards the creatures she so loves) grows in future books.
In Book Smugglerish, a tentative 6 sparklings out of 10.
 I bring up the hunting of lions and elephants, because Isabella has no problem in killing the dragons she so loves, for the good of science, claiming: “Yes, we shot a dragon. I find it fascinating that so many people take exception to this [...] They certainly have not spent days among Vystrani shepherds, for whom dragons are neither sacred nor even likeable, but rather troublesome predators who all too often make off with the shepherds’ livelihood in their jaws.” This rationale, I’d wager, will rub plenty of modern readers the wrong way.
 If Isabella was a British noblewoman in late 1800s on an expedition to, say, Egypt and extolled the same views, this would be lamentable, but would make sense in context for the time period.