Marie Brennan, A Natural History of Dragons (2013)

A Natural History of Dragons

Author: Marie Brennan

Title: A Natural History of Dragons

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 335

Series: Memoirs of Lady Trent, 1

An American folklorist and anthropologist turned writer, Marie Brennan aka Bryn Neuenschwander is an author known to many in the blogosphere for her entertaining and quite educational – if in the tongue in cheek style – series titled Memoirs of Lady Trent. For example, you can read the enthusiastic review by Bookforager here 🙂 Written from a first person perspective it grants us a rather unique narrative; for Lady Trent is an elderly and eccentric personage, whose old age coupled with enormous experience, accomplishments in the field of natural science, considerable wealth and status as well as an aristocratic background, free her entirely from fears of the sanctimonious outrage and possible sanctions of her society. This perspective lends the novels an air of unforced entertainment; a light, gossipy feel to what otherwise might have been a bit too heavy imitation of travel chronicles and taxonomy efforts of the nineteenth century naturalists and anthropologists. But most importantly – and incidentally it is where Brennan truly excels – the series is in essence a long, superbly meandering and convoluted love letter to dragons, envisioned as a family of species not unlike dolphins or apes: possessed of intelligence and – possibly – sentience, with their own rituals and traditions, and what at a first glance resembles the beginnings of a culture.

How it will all pan out, I don’t rightly know – yet, I might add – as I’ve only read two books so far. But I can already say with certainty that Brennan’s treatment of dragons, while fully indebted to Darwin, owes an equally great deal to Jane Goodall. The overwhelming sense of kinship with a family of species so different to ours is something I truly treasure here, particularly because Isabella Trent’s feisty and inquisitive nature easily lends herself to seeing the world around as a whole, all life irrevocably intertwined and interdependent.

I’ll be honest: I write this review after reading the first two installments. This undoubtedly colors my views, and it colors them in favor of the series. The first novel, A Natural History of Dragons, reads in many aspects like a debut. Firstly, it is thoroughly unable to keep the disguise of memoirs of a venerable old lady for long. After the promising beginning the narrative quickly steers toward more typical young woman’s adventurous exploits in foreign lands, and only a fleeting commentary here and there reminds us of the overarching structure. Secondly, many elements of this first installment are textbook standard tropes of fantasy – which does not have to be bad, per se, but is inescapably unoriginal and, at times, rather tedious. Thirdly, that first book is hard-pressed to define itself: it wants to be a witty commentary on nineteenth century Britain (with several nicely executed jabs toward our own times) cum East Europe travelogue almost as much as it wants to be a naturalist’s account of biological and evolutionary discoveries. It can’t be both at once, not at that rather humble length, and so it remains stranded in the middle, neither here nor there, with promising leanings in both directions that ultimately remain only that: leanings. Yet for all these woes and the undeniable fact that this book is rather formulaic, it is nevertheless constantly entertaining. Lady Trent doesn’t spare the readers any humiliation experienced in her younger years – on the contrary, she seems to derive a lot of pleasure from the reminiscence of these early bumbling years. And while the tonal unevenness, the oscillation between the perspective of someone young and someone old, at times becomes tiresome and jarring, I can already say that the second installment fares much better in that regard. Many seemingly unnecessary plot points from the first book are continued in the second in a way that is ultimately satisfying. Alas, upon initial reading the overabundance of seemingly insignificant details may seem a bit off-putting, so here’s the warning, and the assurance that it does get better, if you’re willing to forego or suspend harsher judgment for the sake of a second chance 😉

A-Natural-History-of-Dragons-art-1

As you have probably noticed by now, the language of this review owes a fair bit to the florid and convoluted language of Victorian/Edwardian era – and that despite the fact that I have read both novels about two months and ten books ago. It does tend to stick, the bugger 😉 For all the indispensable ornamentations the prose is light and engaging, and highly entertaining. As the protagonist obviously survived on to the old age, the main source of tension is subtly repositioned from life-threatening situations to the risks and opportunities of proving one’s worth in a very gender-skewed and gender-rigged world of academic achievement. I couldn’t shake the feeling that Brennan somehow included her own experiences in The Memoirs – even though the world we live in should be different by now 😉 Definitely, some of the dilemmas, especially surrounding the difficulties in reconciling career and family needs, remain the same. I clearly remember the inauguration of my own PhD studies, during which one of my professors (a woman), seeing my last name changed in marriage, remarked publicly that she hoped that starting a family wouldn’t become a nuisance in my academic career. Yet Brennan’s take on the problem, devoid of vitriol or bitterness, yet frank and unflinching in the exploration of some very tough decisions, was surprisingly refreshing.

Here I must say a few words about the protagonist, Isabella Trent herself. While other characters remain very much in the background – unfortunately, I might add, for I’d like to know more about them, she is a definite delight of the series: headstrong, stubborn, socially awkward, a bookworm with surprising depths of courage, sometimes horrifying single-mindedness of purpose and the sort of deranged practicality that on more than one occasion becomes a welcome source of much-needed levity. In this context A Natural History of Dragons needs to be viewed as a part of much bigger whole: it is only the beginning of Lady Trent’s journey, and the girl we meet there has a lot of life-changing decisions and experiences ahead of her.

Finally, the dragons – the focal point of the series. Brennan’s take is quite unique in that she treats the dragons not as creatures of myth or legends, but quite the opposite: they are very much blood and bone, a separate family (if insect-like sparklings are any indication) of a variety of draconic species, nested firmly within the broader taxonomic class of winged reptiles. Reminiscent of great apes, octopuses or elephants, the dragons in Memoirs of Lady Trent are truly awe-inspiring creatures – and seeing them with my mind’s eye makes me wish they were real 😉

A Natural History of Dragons Sparkling

All in all, I found Memoirs of Lady Trent a quite compelling read: funny, observant, evocative and thought-provoking, reminiscent of many anthropological classics in a way that pays them a much deserved tribute. While A Natural History of Dragons remains a flawed if entertaining read, The Tropic of Serpents admirably finds its own pace and style. I’m happy to say that I fully intend to continue with the series.

Lastly, I cannot but mention the beautiful covers – and illustrations by Todd Lockwood :). They do add an additional layer to the whole enterprise, very much in line with the naturalistic spirit of the novels. And even if one is less scientifically inclined, they are simply a delight to look upon :D.

Score: 7,5/10

56 thoughts on “Marie Brennan, A Natural History of Dragons (2013)

  1. I enjoyed the first book but the 2nd book is where the author lost me. So I was glad to know you’ve already read, and enjoyed, the 2nd book. That way I don’t have to wonder 😀

    Do you have plans on finishing the series up any time soon or will you just work it into your reading schedule when you can?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I actually think the second one is better 🙂 Less predictable, more adventurous, some nice anthropological tidbits here and there to lend the world some credibility… Was there any particular reason it didn’t work for you?

      I’ll be pacing myself with this series. I enjoy the novels, but I’m not absolutely crazy about them. They are not cherished treasures, like certain other books I could mention here 😉 So I’m thinking a Lady Trent book every few months will be a nice break from my usual fare, which now for a strange reason involves a lot of high fantasy – and Moby Dick 😀

      Liked by 1 person

        1. Lol, and here I was priming myself to start! You’re right, I should definitely take a break 😂

          I hear you, there was a lot of rather anachronistic modern thinking in both of the books – but I minded it less than in Cameron’s The Red Knight, for example, where it was so glaring it actually impinged on my reading pleasure. Here I just noticed it, shrugged and let it pass 😉 the dragons were too cool to care about such nuisances!

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Yep, just ease your way into Moby Dick. No need to rush anything.

            I only made it through one of Cameron’s books and there were other things that distracted me so I didn’t notice that particular aspect.

            With all of this naysaying, I am glad you have found this series to be enjoyable. Having a completed series on hand for those times you need a lighter read is always a good thing.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. A completed, enjoyable series is a treat 😀 And Brennan gets additional points for keeping it short – five medium-sized books, not twenty, is a nice change of pace.
              That said, I am still looking for a really mind-bending, heart-rending and thought-provoking series, something to sub for Cook’s Black Company 😉 Asher is solid and pretty close to the mark, especially in that last aspect, but a bit of good epic fantasy wouldn’t be amiss…

              Liked by 1 person

                  1. Well, Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera is definitely Epic Fantasy. Not sure that it fits the other descriptions you wanted though 🙂 I happen to love Alera though, so I’m not very “unbiased”.

                    There is also the Memory, Thorn and Sorrow trilogy by Tad Williams. A bit Old School, but good stuff none the less.

                    Liked by 1 person

                    1. Thanks! I enjoyed Dresden, might take a look at Codex Alera. As for Williams, I’ve read some of his works and they just don’t work for me. He’s writing fantasy fast food :P.
                      But just to clarify, when I say epic, I don’t mean necessarily high fantasy, mediaeval etc. – I mean something rather more in line with military fantasy; McClellan did very well with his Powder Mage trilogy, for example 🙂

                      Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh my goodness, I love this series. And Todd Lockwood is soooo talented, I love his dragons! I confess seeing the artwork on the cover and interiors was a huge part of why I picked up the first book when I saw it on the shelf at the bookstore 🙂 That this turned out to be such a charming book was a nice surprise. Glad to hear you’ll be continuing with the series because in my opinion it just gets better and better!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed it all and that it gets better with every book 😀
      Truth be told, the illustrations and the covers were one of the main incentives to pick up the book for me as well 😉

      Like

  3. I also did a review of book one, funnily enough it did rather well, I wonder if it was because I used a different persona than normal. Great review! I had minor gripes with the book but Milou as book 2 and three as well on our bookshelve, I will be trying to get to them in the new year.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! 😊
      This book is by no means perfect, but quite enjoyable – and I’m pleased to report that I enjoyed the second installment even more – the worldbuilding foundation was set, so there was more character development and an overall tighter plot. I’ll be looking forward to your review, once you get to read book two 😀
      Incidentally, I just borrowed Konrad Curze from my library – will let you know how my first Warhammer read went! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Love your review, Chris, and I find it intriguing that we both touched upon so many similar points in our independent posts 🙂
      The second installment was an improvement on the first one, at least for me :), and now I’m waiting for my library copy of the third 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Yup, I don’t think you’d enjoy this one very much. It’s a light, entertaining read, but I believe it could be way too fluffy and generic to your liking 🙂
      Glad my review could be of help! 😄
      I do share your problem of monstrous TBR, so I’m always grateful for any help in diminishing it a bit – though reading reviews of my fellow bloggers usually enlarges it instead 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m very glad I was able to remedy that and I hope you’ll enjoy Memoirs of Lady Trent, Aaron!
      Yes, the cover and the illustrations are even better up close – especially that all the covers to the books in the series are the type that continues to the back as well 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for the shout out. 🙂 ❤
    So glad you're enjoying the Lady Trent books so far – you've reminded me I need to get back to the series … I could do with some entertainment right now. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a pretty entertaining read, funny and light, but quite compelling, too! 😀
      And, spoiled as I am, doI wish there were even more illustrations 😉

      Like

  5. It’s the covers that made me buy these books. I haven’t read them yet though, but I’m glad you found it entertaining despite the drawbacks. This one might be a hit or miss for me based on what you said about the writing. I’d like to give it a go though since it’s a series with dragons.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The dragons are very cool indeed, and Brennan’s approach is fresh and quite unique. I do hope you’ll enjoy it, despite its limitations. It’s a book that is hard not to like, even a bit, despite its formulaic character 🙂
      I hope you’ll give it a chance. I’ll be waiting to read your review if you do! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I read a novel with illustrations by Todd Lockwood a couple of years ago and loved his dragons too. I can’t imagine how cool they must be in this series. I’ve always wondered about picking this up but hesitated for all the reasons you mentioned. It still sounds decent so I’ll keep your review in my mind when I come across a copy of it in the near future. Great review as always, Ola! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you as always, Lashaan! 😀
      If you’re looking for a mind-bending, profound and heart-rending book, this is not it 😂 But it’s a nice, light read, a pleasant palate cleanser between heavier novels – it’s protagonist is hard not to like, worldbuilding solid, and dragons are splendid both in writing and on the illustrations 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Ha- I’m torn on how I feel about this based on your review! It sounds charming and endearing, but also the part that’s unoriginal mixed with florid, convoluted language makes me not so excited to read it. Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If you’re ever in need of a lightweight, pleasant read and/or dragons, this is a solid proposition. I’m continuing with the series despite it’s flaws, my satisfaction outweighs them by far – at least for now 🙂
      Hope this helps! And thanks! 😊

      Liked by 1 person

    1. There are less illustrations than I would like, sadly 😉 But it’s a really neat, entertaining book, especially for a young (early teenage, let’s say) easily impressed girl… or three 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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  12. Ah, there it is 😀 As a followup to Driftwood, I was curious how you felt about this one. I noticed several reviews who didn’t like the academic meanderings at all and didn’t continue the series. So, it’s good to have an opinion taking the second one into account. Did you read the rest of series?
    I guess I need the hardcover alone for those gorgeous dragon illustrations!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I enjoyed it, academic meandering and all, and I liked the second book even more than the first. The third one was unfortunately less interesting for me – but maybe it was just reading fatigue. I’ll be coming back to the series at some point 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

          1. Interesting! Post-war more like Vietnam or even more recent wars (Iraq, Pakistan)? Or civil war and WWI/II?
            Brennan should fit to your education. I‘ve got two authors with my professional background – Vernor Vinge and Ken Kiu. Often, their stories just click with me and I understand at once where they come from.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Actually, post-Vietnam and post-War on Terror. The Punisher article I linked on our blog is mine 😉

              Curiously enough, while I adore some of the Easter eggs Brennan puts into her work, and I very much appreciate the academic spin of her novels, I find her line of reasoning often too simplified for my liking, or outright disputable 😉 Somehow I find more in common with all-out scientific writers, like Stephenson, Reynolds or indeed Liu, whose Paper Menagerie I’m currently reading and enjoying a lot! 😀

              Liked by 1 person

              1. I always take scientific arguments in novels with a grain of salt: they have to be oversimplified to be acceptable for the common reader. And there are always different academic schools. But I love to be remembered of stuff I studied 25 years ago and my mind keeps drifting away as soon as I read some nifty key word.
                Maybe all those years provided me with enough distance 😁

                I‘m glad that you like Paper Menagerie. And I‘m with you with the other authors, they are great!

                Liked by 1 person

                1. Well, exactly; that’s why it bothers me when I know the science behind intimately and see all the shortcuts or omissions or misrepresentations 😉 whereas in physics or computer science I’m able to appreciate general concepts as they are, and not get into too much detail (though even there if my knowledge exceeds the book content I’ll be digging deeper and figuring out holes and omissions – like biology, evolution and genetics in Seveneves, where Stephenson’s shortcuts in the last part irritated me to no end ;))

                  Liked by 1 person

                  1. I guess, I‘ve made my peace with „exactness“ in novels. As soon as you’re starting digging, novels go downhill. I give it a long leash – only when it’s obviously wrong, I get angry. Whatever „obvious“ means 😁

                    Liked by 1 person

                    1. I don’t get angry… much 😂 I’m willing to happily go along as long the internal logic is maintained – but when that’s broken, my teeth grow longer instantly 😁 The problem with scientific approach in the novels is that you need to make some compromises along the way if the book is going to be readable and interesting as a novel. So I’m fine with a level of simplification – I’m just very picky when it comes to omission or misrepresentation of ideas. I like to be inspired/mentally challenged by a book, so if an author introduces certain concepts I like to dig into them and digest them. As a consequence, as you can probably imagine, not many books get a 10 from me 😄

                      Liked by 1 person

                    2. Neal Stephenson should be fine and I’m surprised that Seveneves is lacking. I read that and found the orbital mechanics correct but exhausting; he lost me in the second half and I didn’t pay attention anymore.
                      For a ten, I have a central criteria: it must last longer than the reading, has to challenge a brain workout – most often with a philosophical issue.

                      Liked by 1 person

                    3. Oh, his physics is way above me and looks very convincing 😁 I’m talking about the survivors from the submarine who somehow were able to adapt to live underwater within a generation, and those other guys in the caves also seemed to have it real easy 😉 my review for Seveneves is on the blog if you’re interested 🙂

                      Yeah, for me 10 is similar – it must be really outstanding, original, thought-provoking, emotionally touching, and lasting. In short, a masterpiece 😀

                      Liked by 1 person

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