Guest Review: A NATURAL HISTORY OF DRAGONS by Marie Brennan (Tor/Titan)

BrennanM-LT1-ANaturalHistoryOfDragonsUSThe first Memoir of Lady Trent

You, dear reader, continue 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…

All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.

Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever. 

Reviewed by Ryan Frye

A Natural History of Dragons is set in a Victorian-era-esque, male-dominated world where women, particularly those like Isabella (of noble birth) are meant to host teas, plan dinners and keep their interaction with the natural world limited to gardening. Obviously, Isabella wants none of that life and instead yearns to be accepted into the scholarly life as a Natural Historian who studies dragons. As luck would have it, she winds up marrying possibly the one man in all of Scirland who is willing to help her achieve her goals. Through her husband’s connections, she finagles her way into an expedition that is set to study dragons in a far-off land. Upon arrival, they are attacked by one of the region’s dragons, (attacks of this sort are a rare occurrence), and from there, the expedition continuously veers away from its original purpose.

From the opening sentences of Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons I found myself dragged into a world where dragons are plentiful, human encounters with the creatures common, but scientific knowledge of the scaly beasts lacking. Alongside Isabella, the protagonist and narrative voice behind A Natural History of Dragons, the reader gets the sensation of making numerous dragon-related scientific discoveries… all while remaining safely ensconced in one’s preferred reading chair!  Thanks to a gripping first person narrative, I fell swiftly under Brennan’s spell, and enjoyed being carried away into this dragon-filled world.

When fantasy authors utilize dragons, they tend to tread lightly and maintain an air of mystery and magic with the beast. Not so with Brennan. Instead, through her protagonist, she seeks to achieve deep scientific knowledge of them. As someone who has been reading and daydreaming about dragons for a good portion of his life, I really enjoyed this aspect of the book. This discovery is aided by the fact that Isabella, Lady Trent, is plucky, deeply curious, and defiant of cultural and societal conventions. All of which make her fun to follow.

While I enjoyed the character of Isabella thoroughly, I found that the supporting cast paled in comparison. Much less effort was put into character development of the other principle characters; which ended up proving costly to my overall enjoyment of the book during the late stages of the narrative.

Once on the dragon expedition, and the dragon attacks start to mount up, it falls to Isabella, her husband, their two fellow scientists, and a few locals to try and sort out what is upsetting the beasts and causing such strife… Which is also where the novel started to sour on me. As the mystery developed, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was in the midst of a Scooby-Doo style mystery where the bad guys would have gotten away with it, if it wasn’t for those pesky kids. There just wasn’t enough tension to really have me on the edge of my seat, and the lack of character development meant I wasn’t as invested as I could have been. These two factors combined for a weak pay-off.

While A Natural History of Dragons begins with a lot of promise, features an engaging protagonist, and serves up a hearty dose of Dragons, the plot leads to an underwhelming climax. The positives, as strong as they are, may be enough to sustain, and entertain many readers, but for my tastes, the weak supporting characters and underwhelming plot pay-off make for a middle of the road reading experience.


A Natural History of Dragons is published in the US by Tor Books, and in the UK by Titan Books. Both also publish books two-to-four: The Tropic of SerpentsThe Voyage of the Basilisk and In the Labyrinth of Drakes (out next month).


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