Author: Marie Brennan
Title: A Natural History of Dragons
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 😉
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 😉
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.