A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan is the first instalment in the The Memoirs of Lady Trent fantasy series. The story is an account of a natural historian that discusses how she became fascinated with dragons as a kid, and how that infatuation would influence her entire life growing up, from finding love to pursuing a career as a draconic specialist.
This was a novel that I had always had a bit of a passing interest in. The premise sounded like it would be good, which can be chocked up to my love of dragons (they are gargantuan, scaly kitties in my mind), but I never actually read it because aside from the dragons, I got the feeling it would be an immensely sluggish reading experience. Then Sir Besty grabbed it from the library and invited me to do a buddy read with them when we saw the library had two copies. Now that I’m done reading it, I can safely admit that I was quite correct about it being a trudge through muck.
The structure of the novel is very much akin to that of a personal memoir, which had a bit of charm to it as it’s uncommon. It is filled with personal anecdotes about growing up in a “proper” Victorian home where females aren’t allowed to do anything except to play with flowers, learn how to do needlework accurately, and then get married and pop out children like peas from a pod. I liked the commentary on how restrictive this sexist mentality can be and that it is expressed with a voice that is sarcastic and witty.
The story as it follows her childhood and into her late adolescence, where she meets her love interest, flowed rather comfortably. It was only slightly paced as it expressed details and emotions as well as some conflicting thoughts that Lady Trent had about how things were unfolding before her, yet it didn’t feel unnecessarily deliberate. It isn’t until she begins her introduction into dragon study after joining an expedition to see dragons in person that things become frustrating.
The information provided on dragon physiology, biology, and behavioural patterns were greatly interesting, and actually fit with a lot of things that I had read about in a dragon sourcebook, but the expression of scientific dribble takes that fun and drops it into a bag of tediousness, rendering it to be extremely boring. The scientific aspects probably stem from the author’s personal experience of being an anthropologist and contributed heavily to the clinical spirit of the story. However, all of the fascinating titbits about dragons and the theories surrounding their social interactions with one another, came with so much unnecessary baggage, which then became repetitive sporadically throughout the book, that reading began to feel like a tremendously daunting chore.
There came a point while reading it that I started to realise the book could’ve been far shorter and much more pleasant if it didn’t drag on and on. I had such a difficult time actually making it to the end. When I reached the last one-fourth to one-fifth, I became even more shocked by the sudden turn of events. Everything that had occurred up to this point sort of slammed into a climax wall and things suddenly started progressing quite fast. This shift in tone was uncomfortable and further contributed to my frustrations because of how imbalanced it made the whole damn narrative feel. There was even a tragedy tossed in for good measure.
Pacing issues aside, the narrative itself started its trek in one direction with a focus on learning more about dragons, since they were one of the biggest mysteries of the world, and then around the last one-third it changed into a story about small town dynamics with regard to a special group of people and their motives. Lady Trent’s commentary (i.e.: whining) on the cultural differences and the religious practices of the region’s people—a region where she’s the guest, no less—were also a bit racist, superior, and ignorant, highlighting her privileged upbringing and culturally close-minded persona. Admittedly, she does acknowledge her ignorance and disrespect, but only to an extent and she still continues to be a bit of an ass.
Overall, I didn’t really care for A Natural History of Dragons. I do appreciate some parts of it and the construction of it as a memoir, but it didn’t have enough actual adventure to keep me invested in it, including an acceptable speed where plot advancement is concerned. If you aren’t dissuaded by supremely slow and meticulously scientific stories, particularly where the study of animals in their natural habitat are concerned, then you may have better luck with reading this book than I did. Otherwise, I would skip it as there are far more gratifying novels about dragons out there.
2.5 firestones outta 5!