Review: A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

‘I believed myself to be ready then; now, with the hindsight brought by greater age, I see myself for the naive and inexperienced young woman I was. We all begin in such a manner, though. There is no quick route to experience.’

It’s not often I go back to a series I abandoned years ago. I generally carry on with whatever series have my attention, finish them or go looking for new ones. Especially when it comes to SFF and the constant influx of new, exciting voices are always coming in to the genres. But I’ve been reading a lot more fantasies of manners this year! So I decided to give Lady Trent another go!

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.

This is my first review in a few weeks so please forgive if my brain hasn’t quite caught up with critical analysis, but I really enjoyed this one! At the start of the month, my role in my job completely changed and ended up with me being promoted but in that weird space where your current team is ending but you’re about to start something totally new. And I wasn’t getting any reading done so I decided audio was my best choice.

This was an excellent introduction to a longer series that is following one person over their story. I’ve seen similar vibes in the likes of say the Farseer trilogy where the books following Fitz get longer and longer. Or even similar to Martha Well’s Murderbot where we are getting short, snappy entries from this character as they go about their life. The Lady Trent books are laid out by the very lady herself but are condensed periods in her life as she struggles, wins and loses.

We follow Isabella, a young woman native to Scirland. Isabella’s family attain a privileged position in society and seek to have her, their only daughter, follow the usual path of young ladies. Namely a debut during a season and at the end of it, a well found marriage. Isabella has her own ideas however which is books, dragons and learning about both. I love a good rule breaking Lady or a bookish MC, Isabella was no exception (I’m choosing to call her Isabella due to she referring to herself as this and for this period of her life, she isn’t Lady Trent just yet) and I especially loved how Brennan characterises her.

I saw a few reviews mention her clear entitlement over the course of the story, mostly in her moments Vystrana with the natives and her moments with Mr Thomas Wilker, a man who was born to a working class family and made his own way into high society. But what I think is easy to mess is the set up for later books Brennan is clearly doing for her character or the moments where Isabella is confronted with her so clear privilege. Which of course she should be. I am currently listening to the sequel and so far, I’m seeing it confronted again and again. Isabella is a wealthy white woman with a place in high society with the ability, despite her gender to go on adventures to countries all over her world. It would be a little silly if it wasn’t pointed out in the series.

While the book continues at the brisk, tight pace I’ve come to expect with fantasies of manners, the world building does come and go in places. These books aren’t about dragons, they are about a woman who rose above her station and became a renowned scholar and adventurer. But I would have liked a tiny bit more about dragons, their history and how they’re just there. There are parts where you get a bit more detail on them in other parts, Vystrana for example. But then it would move along to another moment in the story. It’s still very impressive but did feel a bit like it was zigzagging.

Overall, I really loved this book! It was very soothing on audio, narrated by the fabulous Kate Reading, while also being enough time for me to forget some of the more nuanced plot elements. Like I mentioned earlier in the review, I am currently listening to The Tropic of Serpents which I will review as well but I am continuing to be absorbed by the series. Thanks for your patience guys while I was away! Happy reading to you all!

★★★★/5

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