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Review: A Natural History of Dragons, Marie Brennan

03 Jan

cover22667-medium“Not a day goes by that the post does not bring me at least one letter from a young person (or sometimes one not so young) who wishes to follow in my footsteps and become a dragon naturalist. Nowadays, of course, the field is quite respectable, with university courses and intellectual societies putting out fat volumes titled Proceedings of some meeting or other. Those interested in respectable things, however, attend my lectures. The ones who write to me invariably want to hear about my adventures: my escape from captivity in the swamps of Mouleen, or my role in the great Battle of Keonga, or (most frequently) my flight to the inhospitable heights of the Mrtyahaima peaks, the only place on earth where the secrets of the ancient world could be unlocked.

Even the most dedicated of letter-writers could not hope to answer all these queries personally. I have therefore accepted the offer from Messrs. Carrigdon & Rudge to publish a series of memoirs, chronicling the more interesting portions of my life. By and large these shall focus on those expeditions which led to the discovery for which I have become so famous, but there shall also be occasional digressions into matters more entertaining, personal, or even (yes) salacious. One benefit of being an old woman now, and moreover one who has been called a “national treasure,” is that there are very few who can tell me what I may and may not write.

Beyond this point, therefore, lie foetid swamps, society gossip, disfiguring diseases, familial conflicts, hostile foreigners, and a plenitude of mud. You, dear reader, continue on at your own risk. It is not for the faint of heart — no more so than the study of dragons itself. But such study offers rewards beyond compare: to stand in a dragon’s presence, even for the briefest of moments — even at the risk of one’s life — is a delight that, once experienced, can never be forgotten. If my humble words convey even a fraction of that wonder, I will rest content.

In this first volume, I will relate to you how my career as a lady adventurer and dragon naturalist began, commencing at the creation of my childhood fascination with all things winged, and for the bulk of its length describing my first foreign expedition, to study the rock-wyrms of Vystrana. Common gossip has made the bare facts well-known, but I warn you, dear reader, that all was not as you have heard.

Isabella, Lady Trent
Casselthwaite, Linshire”

So with this one I’ve got to start with the obvious. The cover art, and the illustrations inside, are absolutely gorgeous. Todd Lockwood has completely nailed it, as always. Shallow as it inevitably sounds this one is well worth having for the artwork alone.

Brennan’s writing style is dry and accomplished, and she gives us a strong female lead in a pseudo Victorian setting. I’m afraid that she suffered a little from the fact that I’ve recently finished Carriger’s Soullless, where the wit and charm of Victorian Britain is so deftly portrayed that the inevitable comparison doesn’t go in Brennan’s favour. Had I read this one first, I fear I would have been much more impressed.

The concept behind A Natural History of Dragons is inspired. Isabella is a captivating storyteller, and the novel oozes with promise as you crack into it and the roots of her obsession with dragons are explored. The first section is filled with pointers towards wonderful adventures and fascinating meetings with dragons, but sadly, the promise of the early parts of the book were never really realised for me. Once she finally sets off on her hard won expedition, the adventures and encounters I was anticipating are nowhere to be seen. For me, her time in Vystrana was too involved with people and politics, and completely lacking in the sheer weight of dragony goodness that I was anticipating. That was a huge disappointment for me.

In the early stages of the novel I had it in my head to suggest that this would be the perfect read for anyone who enjoys Austen and loves dragons. By 3/4 way through I’d amended this to anyone who enjoys Austen and a good dose of quirkiness. It was, on the whole, a little too dry for me, although the initial concept and the delicious artwork go a long way.

An ambitious, interesting, pretty, often entertaining but ultimately frustrating read.

 

2A PhoenixFantasy Two Star Read

 

[A Natural History of Dragons is published by Tor Books and will be available in Hardback on 5th Feb 2013]

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Posted by on January 3, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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