A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan is a fantastic book in truly every sense. And I specifically mean the hardback edition. Although of course the paperback is still a wonderful thing, as all paperbacks are. Compact, flexible, and delightfully colourful, but the hardback is truly wonderful.
A Natural History of Dragons, which has the subtitle; A Memoir by Lady Trent is a throwback to the time of intrepid scholar-adventurers, much like Indiana Jones now I come to think about it. The hardback really adds a whole extra dimension to make sure this book is definitely a memoir that would not feel out of place in an old library. You know the kinds of libraries I mean, the ones that have huge bookshelves brimming over with leather-bound tomes. The ones that have armchairs you fall into and can almost smell the pipe-smoke still lingering on the worn leather. That have books with epic titles like ‘Popular Music of the Olden Times‘ in containing the music from all the way back to the Battle of Hastings! (Okay I am thinking of somewhere specific. Yes I’m looking at you Devon and Exeter Institute)
Getting back to the point, why is this hardback fitting in with this? Because it feels like one of those old books. It has a fantastic dust cover which I’ll move on to, but remove that and you’re left with a fairly unassuming brown volume (well unassuming for the word DRAGON emblazoned on the side) and the paper is really what got me. So this is really where the hardback comes into its own. Instead of the, perhaps reassuring, square-edged pages, A Natural History of Dragons has rough edges and varying lengths of paper. Of course, they all sit nicely inside the hardback, but it really adds something else to the whole memoir of a scholar turned adventurer, don’t you think? If you ever wonder why people prefer buying hardbacks, this is it. (If you look carefully you can see the rough edges pages in this image)
But that’s literally judging a book by the cover, and something tells me that’s not such a good idea.
As the subtitle suggests, the book is in the first person and it is Lady Trent telling the story of her life and how her love (obsession?) with dragons fuels her daring adventures and how it ends up with her being the Lady of renown and respected intellect that we now know she is.
I like that, first of all, the assumed knowledge of the reader of Lady Trent as a national treasure and intellectual institute, really helped to set the work in its context and also helped to keep the book a relatively light read without too much suspense concerning our beloved lady (although plenty everywhere else).
The book does well in its writing and although there were never any sentences that caused me to pause and think ‘wow, that’s a superbly written sentence,’ I read the whole thing in two or three sittings and it just flowed very easily. The story never juddered or felt forced in any way and you will find yourself smiling along with the ups of the book and at the very least casting your eyes down in dismay at the low points of the story.
We meet Lady Trent before she was Lady Trent but merely Isabella, the child of a well to-do household and a bit of a tom-boy (or at least as far as the times were concerned). Marie Brennan really seems to want to engage with the inequality of the scientific community and how difficult it was for women to break through and be seen as equals rather than just airhead vehicles for gossip and children.
I realise that I have spent an inordinate amount of time talking about the production of the book. But! Marie Brennan has clearly put in just as much effort as Tor did into her writing, and the story comes off as seamless. You find yourself easily rooting for Isabella as she tries to rise above the glass ceiling to the lofty heights of equality. The story glides easily for one moment to the next without making it appear like the plot is being forced merely to keep the story going. We are definitely driven here by Isabella’s, almost mad, need to research dragons.
If you pick up this book, I do have to say that I don’t think you will be disappointed in any way. Only perhaps that the Memoirs of Lady Trent have not been published in their entirety.