A Natural History of Dragons


Marie Brennan


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

June 22, 2014

Natural History of Dragons is the first book in a series of novels. Indeed, the second has already been published, and based upon the strength of this first book, that second book (The Tropic of Serpents) will be worth picking up. The subtitle for A Natural History of Dragons is A Memoir by Lady Trent. The story is told from a first person viewpoint, as if an elderly Isabelle (the Lady Trent) is looking back upon a long and distinguished career as a famous naturalist and explorer. She says that now she is a celebrated Stirling, but in the beginning, the notion of a woman contributing to scholarship or going on expeditions was positively scandalous. Not that Isabelle gave much concern for society norms.

One of the strongest parts of this novel is the characterization. Isabelle tells the story and she successfully conveys her character that is adventurous and passionately interested in dragons. Isabelle is also headstrong and a bit of a manipulator. Overall she comes across like a person of her era and class, she takes for granted that her station makes her superior to the lesser classes. Because of her spirit, Isabelle is likeable protagonist.

Isabelle's husband is Mr Jacob Camherst. Jacob's portrait is filled in more slowly, he grows from a wooden character into a genuine person with a quiet, reflective personality, he is a good balance to Isabelle's impulsive instincts. The other two members of the expedition to Vystrana are Lord Hilford, a wealthy aristocrat who funds the journey, and his stalwart companion, the low born scholar Mr Wilkins. Mr Wilkins doesn't like Isabelle because of her gender and her implied disdain for his social standing, so the two do not get along well.

In addition to successfully drawing the characters of the four members of the expedition, the author also gives us a portrait of Dagmira, a young woman who lives in Drustanev, the town in the Vystrana highlands where the dragon expedition sets up its base. Dagmira resents Isabelle and her high social standing, but she needs money, so she serves as a surly servant to the Stirlings. Dagmira and her brother are successful characters.

The main plot is the story of an expedition from Scirland to the forbidding highlands of Vystrana for the purpose of studying rock-wyrms, a breed of large, dangerous dragon. Scirland is clearly modeled upon Victorian England. The culture and class system are just like 19th century English - Lord Hilford even brings ridiculous items such as furniture along on the trip. The expedition to Vystrana is meant to recall images of English heroes such as Livingston or Darwin.

Unfortunately, the plot is not as strong as the characterization or world building. The climatic ending involves some rather fortuitous but unlikely events. I hope in future stories in the series, Isabelle prevails due to her wits or actions, rather than happy coincidence.

Also, the people of Drustanev live in a landscape populated by rock-wyrms. Even if they are a superstitious lot, they would certainly know what a dragon footprint looks like, as dragons are common in the area.

I expected there to be more focus on dragon behavior and dragon discoveries. The expedition really only examined the one dragon that they shot - and what IS the deal with the graveyard? It would seem that further expeditions would be required, that the information learned by this journey raises far more questions about rock-wyrms than it answers.

What about the smugglers - where did they go?

Since this is a first novel, it isn't a surprise that the plotting has some holes. But overall it is an enjoyable read and I hope to pick up the second book in the series eventually.