I’m not going to lie; the sole thing that got me to buy ‘A Natural History of Dragons’ by Marie Brennan, was the elaborate drawing of a dragon seemingly coming straight out of a textbook. Now I know that the saying: ‘one mustn’t judge a book by its cover’ definitely applies to books as well, but really, I couldn’t help myself. I’d been pining over it in a way familiar to avid readers for a few weeks when I finally convinced myself I didn’t have to finish the twenty-some books I had already hoarded before I bought this particular copy.
So I suppose it’s safe to say I had some expectations before starting. However it wouldn’t take long for me to be disappointed. Granted, I tend to be a picky reader as of late but the book proved to be at least a little problematic. For me in any case.
The book isn’t so much about dragons (not in the faux-educational way I had naively hoped anyway) as it actually is the first part of Lady Isabella Trent’s memoirs. Now an elderly lady, Miss Trent was actually one of the pioneers in the field of dragon-studies. Around a quarter into the book she and her husband join an expedition to study the Vystrani Rock Wyrms, an expedition that is basically her introduction into the field. Something that always manages to delight me is when, most of all in fantasy literature, the story is so unmistakably part of a universe, a world, that the author assumes you are familiar with it and therefore refers to locations (oft featured on the included map) or practices that, even while they might be a little confusing at first, hint at an elaborate background that doesn’t actually make its way into the book through the main storyline. But it just adds the extra… realism… if that’s a word that I’m permitted to use in this situation.
But none of this was what I was referring to earlier, when I addressed the problems this book held for me.
What truly annoyed me… was the role of women in the society portrayed. Whether that was in the rural and often dismissed as simple Vystrana (read: Any Eastern European country ever) or in the civilized Scirland (which really resembles the United Kingdom a little too much for it to be coincidental). It’s clear to me from the start that this is what they call historical-fantasy, as the dress and general state of machinery suggest in the first chapters alone, and to some people that might be enough to justify the blatant sexism present. But to those people I simply shake my head disapprovingly before I direct them to this lovely article, explaining the matter more calmly than I could.
Secondly I was slightly disheartened by the rather cliché twist of the plot in the last part (as the book is divided in four parts) and the slow progress of the story up until that point. A minor annoyance lay also in the naming of the chapters, with it having titles each more spoiler-y than the last.
Still, I did enjoy reading the book. The writing style was pleasant (although a bit pretentious at times…) and the story was not uninteresting. There were even parts where I laughed out loud, most noteworthy on page 140 where Lady Trent basically encouraged me, the reader, to put down her book and get laid.)
So yes, I would recommend reading it, if only for the fact that it focuses largely on dragons.
Because dragons, man, dragons.