Long before Game of Thrones, there has been a fascination with dragons and dragon lore. Some of this lore, or rather scientific discovery, is shared in Marie Brennan’s novel A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent. Through Lady Trent, an introduction to a world where fantasy, history, and even science present dragons in a new light to readers.
The story takes place in a world where both steamboats and dragons exist. Usually, in stories about dragon lore, we see fantasy realms comparable to medieval settings. While in Scirland, comparisons can be made to England in the mid-1800’s with new scientific discoveries and inventions.
We see through the books Isabella reads growing up that dragons are considered a legitimate area of study. However, not much remains known about them. That is until Isabella and her companions travel to a remote village in Vystrana to study dragons up close.
A Natural History of Dragons – Isabella’s Dragon Obsession
When readers meet Isabella, she is a child with an analytical mind. Other girls have interests in horses, romance, and flowers. Isabella is instead capturing Sparklings, tiny dragons, and dissecting doves to discover how they work. Her obsession with flight dives straight into dragons after her father gets a book called A Natural History of Dragons, which Isabella reads many times over.
It isn’t until she’s 19 years old – married to a fellow dragon lore fan – that she gets to study adult dragons up close. Similar to England in the mid-1800s, scholarly pursuits, and going on expeditions in general, are not appropriate for ladies. With the support of her husband, however, she persuades dragon scholar Lord Hilford to let her join the team. Primarily to organize files and sketch samples. At least in the beginning.
The more time Isabella spends with dragons, the clearer it becomes this is her career. Not a hobby. She is intelligent, observant, insightful, and at times extremely stubborn. This stubbornness is sometimes a result of needing to find answers. Sometimes it’s from being limited with societal expectations as a woman abroad.
A Scientific Approach To Dragon Lore
Brennan’s novel is less about dragons and dragon lore and more about the scientific study of dragons. Something that is not often seen in works of fiction about these creatures. After arriving in Vystrana, the team discovers that dragons are attacking humans sporadically.
This is not a known behavior and highly unusual. While studying dragons, Isabella and the group strive to discover not just where the dragons are and how they live, but why these attacks have been happening. There are theories, biological samples, and the testing of those theories. Local dragon lore and superstition are even factored in.
The details in this book are very precise and specific as a result. Readers get a thorough sense of what a dragon’s wing looks like and its composition. Bone density. Behavioral patterns. All explored with an analytical eye. This approach makes the dragons seem less like mythical creatures and more like animals you would normally find in the wild. It’s an intriguing way to learn about the subject.
A Fictional Memoir
As the title suggests, the story takes the form of a memoir, when Lady Trent is an elderly woman recounting her beginnings. News of her adventures is already common knowledge at this point, along with her discoveries.
In her older years, Isabella compares what she learned then to what she knows now. And advises readers to ignore previous works that may no longer be accurate. For example, Sparklings were considered insects during Isabella’s youth, but are now classified as dragons. While the memoir focuses on her entry into the scholarly world of dragons. Isabella, later to become Lady Trent, does, in fact, become a notable scholar.
A female scholar and role model at that. Due to her discoveries and contributions, it later becomes more acceptable for women to be scholars as well. Especially dragon scholars. With five books in the series thus far, Isabella has many more adventures to share, separating dragon facts from dragon lore.
A practical approach to the study of dragons, Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons reads like a fictitious memoir with elements of fantasy and science; and it works. While it would be nice to have the dragons feature more prominently in the story – rather than on the process to find them – it’s still an engaging read.
With four more memoirs, readers get the chance to learn about different kinds of dragons, along with Isabella’s journey from dragon fanatic to dragon scholar. If you’re a dragon fan yourself and can’t wait for more dragon lore elsewhere, get a copy of Brennan’s series and meet these creatures for yourself.