Readable, But Not as Engaging as Could Be Desired – A Review of A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

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When I was growing up, I was addicted to a particular kind of book: the kind where people died in violent, occasionally gruesome, circumstances; where characters’ lives were threatened at every turn; where the action was fast-paced and kept me turning pages well into the night. I mostly blame this on my mother’s preference for thrillers and mysteries: when I first asked if I could read “adult” books (meaning, books without pictures), the first book she gave me was Jurassic Park, which featured the aforementioned qualities, with the deaths edging towards gruesome. My mother did not censor my reading, trusting in my own abilities to judge whether or not I was ready for a book, and since I handled Jurassic Park just fine, she fed me a steady stream of action-packed books from her own personal library, even as I did my own hunting in the school library, favouring material like The Three Musketeers and the Sherlock Holmes stories.

It was this early moulding of my reading preferences that pretty much guaranteed my near-instant dislike for novels like Pride and Prejudice, which I had to read when I was in my senior year of high school. By then, other kinds of reading had tempered my tastes somewhat, so I was also reading slower-paced material, but there was just something about Pride and Prejudice that just did not sit well with me. It wasn’t just the pace, strictly speaking: it was the emphasis on the way people acted, and on how those actions affected those around them and how those reactions impacted a whole lot of other things—like marriage prospects. At sixteen, I was hot-headed and impatient and not in any way thinking of marriage, so I took an instant set against anything like Pride and Prejudice—anything, therefore, that might be considered a “novel of manners”.

I’ve since revised my stand, however. While at university I learned to find pleasure in slower works of fiction, and came to enjoy not just Pride and Prejudice, but other novels of manners as well. This led to a deeper appreciation for the way character interactions and cultural differences can play a role in the shaping of not just characters, but the plot and the world of the novel itself, which is a cornerstone in the appreciation and understanding of fantasy and science fiction. In fact, it might be said that Jane Austen eventually led me to appreciate novels like Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, which I consider to be one of the finest books I’ve read in recent memory. It’s hard, after all, to really appreciate stories of court intrigue unless one can also appreciate the nuances of culture and manners, and I have Jane Austen and Edith Wharton to thank for that.

This explains, then, why my friend Sian recommended that I read Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons back in 2013, when it first came out. At the time, I was more involved in other kinds of reading (I think this was more or less the time that I was agonising over the wait for Scott Lynch’s Republic of Thieves, the third book in his Gentlemen Bastards series), and as a rule my interest in all things draconic tends to wax and wane in terms of strength. But after two years (sorry Sian!), I’ve decided to give it a shot.

A Natural History of Dragons is a memoir of one Lady Trent, one of the premier scientists of a place called Scirland. In the Preface, she claims she is writing these memoirs at the insistence of various letter-writers, who want to know more about her adventures while she was a young woman, travelling all around the world, pursuing dragons in the name of science. In this book, she explains the beginnings of her dragon obsession, as well as the first adventure she undertook: to the land of Vystrana, on an expedition to learn more about rock-wyrms, a species of dragon native to the area. However, that adventure proved to be about more than just scientific discovery, and Isabella learned quite a few things about gaining things—and losing things, as well.

At first glance, I can see why this book ought to be right up my alley. Todd Lockwood’s gorgeous artwork for the cover, echoing the anatomical artwork from the 19th and early 20th centuries, is not only lovely to look at, but intriguing as well. It promised a “scientific” look at a mythological creature—my favourite mythological creature, no less—in a way reminiscent of the travel and natural history treatises a la Charles Darwin.

What I got wasn’t quite that. To be sure, some of it lived up to expectation: the scientific side of it (where it did focus on science) was interesting, and seemed more or less plausible. As for the artwork, it was also quite lovely—where it existed in the first place. Most of the novel, though, had to do with Isabella herself, and her journey towards becoming a scientist: a woman in a man’s world. And this is where, I think, the novel really falls apart for me.

First: the world itself. Brennan doesn’t use real names, but it’s extremely obvious that her world is meant to mimic the real world as it stood in the Regency and Victorian periods, just with the names of the countries changed. While I can certainly tolerate this sort of thing happening in fantasy, I don’t understand why Brennan chose to go that route when she didn’t change anything significant about the world besides the names of the countries themselves. For example, it was so clear to me that Scirland is meant to be the British Empire, that I kept getting thrown off whenever I saw the name “Scirland” where I expected “England” or “Great Britain”. The same applies for Chiavora, which is Italy; and Bulskevo, which is obviously Russia, right down to the fact that it’s ruled by a tsar and its territories controlled by boyars. Even the calendar was changed, as if it would help further distance this (supposedly) made-up world from our own, but it didn’t help much at all: simply added to the confusion as I tried to align this “made-up” world with the real history I was already familiar with.

This made me wonder: why did Brennan not just choose to go the alternate history route? It seemed the clearest way to go, given how her world-building essentially amounted to borrowing a whole chunk of history and then putting dragons in it in a scientific, logical manner. It would have made more sense, too, and would have been far more fun, if that were the case. However, I then remembered that Naomi Novik had done something similar with her Temeraire series (albeit sans science, since her series was more an homage to books like the Aubreyad and the Horatio Hornblower series), so perhaps Brennan’s choices were meant to distance her work from Novik’s. I can’t say for certain that that’s the reason why, but it’s a reason that makes sense to me, not least because Novik went there first.

Still, I think Brennan should have just gone the alternate history route, despite any potential comparisons to Novik’s work. After all, A Natural History of Dragons is so very different, in terms of direction and content, from the Temeraire books, that it would be capable of standing on its own. In fact, it would have been rather fun to read them in tandem with each other, despite the differences in content, as a way of comparing how two different writers approach similar world-building ideas from very different angles. Sadly, that’s not what happens with A Natural History of Dragons, and it’s rather unfortunate that that’s the case.

As for the narrator and protagonist, Isabella, I am rather conflicted when it comes to her. While the other characters feel mildly colourless and bland, she stands out, and not just because she’s the narrator. On one hand, I like the idea of her: a woman in a man’s world, with very strong echoes of Mary Anning, who discovered the first complete Ichthyosaur skeleton and who was one of the most important palaeontologists of her time—all this, despite the fact that she was a woman, and therefore not welcome in the very male, very closed circles of natural historians and palaeontologists at the time. I also like Isabella’s narrative voice, for the most part: as a confident older woman, one who’s seen things and done things that most other women (and quite a few men) would never have dared, she firmly believes it is her privilege to speak as she chooses to speak, on whatever she wants, in order to tell her story as she sees fit.

What I didn’t like, however, was her worldview. Apart from her views on women and their place in society, Isabella’s worldview is otherwise that of the average British citizen: one that looked down on other people who were not otherwise white and British. It’s these views that also make me wish Brennan had just chosen to write her novels as alternate history: had Isabella expressed her objectionable viewpoints as a British citizen of the appropriate time period, her views and opinions would be a direct, if regrettable, consequence of her time. This would not make them any more bearable, but there would at least be a somewhat-logical excuse to accept her viewpoint and hope that it changes as time goes on.

But that’s not the case. By explicitly changing the names of countries, as well as changing the calendar, Brennan is explicitly stating that, though there are many (too many, in my opinion) cultural similarities between the real world and the world of the novel, they are still not the same thing. This means, therefore, that there would be—should be—plenty of room to change objectionable cultural viewpoints that plagued the original, real-world perceptions of British citizens, if not immediately, then at least gradually, over the course of the novel.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen. Some attempt is made at addressing class differences, but that’s only within the scope of Scirland (British) society. Isabella still looks down on the villagers of Drustanev: her scorn for their traditions, as well as her treatment of Dagmira, whom she considers her maid, make it very clear that if the other person is not at least from Scirland, like herself, they are beneath her notice at best, and an object of scorn at most. And this is when she’s dealing with very poor, but still white, people; I dread to imagine the things she’d say in the later books, where it’s clear the people she’ll be encountering are most certainly not white.

I don’t expect novels to be overtly political. Lots of novels are meant to be just for fun, with no overt agenda to them. In fact, it can be mildly irritating to read a novel with an overt and obvious agenda that it’s trying too hard to push (Simon R. Green’s Shadows Fall is my personal example for that). However, I do think that writers have a certain responsibility to ensure that their writing does not, at the very least, perpetuate the flaws of the genre they play in, and of fiction as a whole. What they can do varies depending on the genre, but in fantasy and sci-fi, there are nearly no such limits—and therefore, little to no excuse for perpetuating harmful stereotypes.

That is where Isabella, and therefore this book as a whole, in my opinion, fails. Without the excuse of the book being an alternate history, Isabella’s politics and viewpoints feel abrasive and out-of-place. One cannot even fall back on the excuse that she’s only nineteen when this story happens; there’s plenty of moments throughout the book that the older, more experienced Isabella speaks up about how wrong she was during that point in her life, but never once does she speak up against her own personal prejudices. One can, therefore, assume that those biases never really changed. The only concession she makes is to say that she is “grateful for all their aid, and their forbearance in permitting us to come among them”, but she says nothing about the way she heaped scorn on most everything else about them. This is not even a matter of “right versus wrong”, of “science versus faith”: it is a matter of respect, respect Isabella, and therefore Isabella’s culture, doesn’t have. Such a thing does not need further perpetuation in fiction, least of all fantasy fiction.

One might think that the plot will prove some refuge from the above, but that’s also not the case. I don’t mind the slow beginning, with Isabella detailing her childhood and her struggle with a hobby that’s very much at odds with “proper” ladylike behaviour, but I do mind the rest of the plot as it unfolded in Vystrana. I suppose that, had the characters been stronger, more interesting, the plot would have been more interesting too, but that was not the case, what with most of the characters being, as I said earlier, rather bland. Isabella’s an interesting character, true, but the plot was such that she couldn’t support it all by herself, so there were a lot of times when I found myself flipping through the novel just to get things over with, pausing only long enough to read the scientific bits and to look at the artwork.

Overall, A Natural History of Dragons is a tolerable read, but only just. The artwork is pretty enough to capture attention, and while I wish there could have been more of it, that’s mostly personal taste. Isabella is also interesting, mostly because she reminds me of Mary Anning, and other women like her, who struggled to be recognised as scientists in their own right in a world that did not want to recognise them for their achievements.

However, beyond that, the whole thing pretty much falls apart. Despite strange new names for countries, and a new calendar, the “made-up” world in the novel is essentially the same as the real world during the Regency and the Victorian period, and the made-up names just tend to break any sense of immersion the reader might be able to achieve. It also doesn’t help that, though the characters hold all the objectionable stereotypes of British citizens during the equivalent historical periods, there is nothing done to mitigate those viewpoints, despite the fact that the excuse of “historical accuracy” certainly doesn’t apply. Combined with a plot that could only be interesting if the other characters besides Isabella were also interesting, this is a book that’s appealing to those who don’t quite know what they’re getting into, or don’t really mind what they eventually get.

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