Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Review: A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan
Series: Memoir by Lady Trent #1
Genre: Fantasy/Historical
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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 book is very difficult for me to rate, because everything that didn't work for me is what this book is supposed to be.

Let's start with Isabella, Lady Trent herself. I started off liking her. A young lady brought up into a society that feels science isn't a suitable pastime for 'the fairer sex' but bucks traditions and stubbornly pursues her dream. What's not to like?

A surprising amount, actually, as I discovered before I even made it halfway through. (Barely even a quarter.) Isabella doesn't stubbornly pursue her dream, she meekly pursues it. At the first sign of hardship, she drops it - and is subsequently miserable. Which, is something she'll tell you at great length. She is, unfortunately, miserable often. (If she's not having fun, why would I have fun reading a book about her?)

She also exhibits signs of entitlement and a 'better than the natives' mentality. While this would probably be disturbingly accurate for Victorian 'adventure' novels, I didn't expect to find it in this fantasy world. Ultimately, I didn't get attached to her, which is a shame, because it's impossible to get attached to anyone else.

There's a reason I prefer third person perspective over first. I've always said that first person tells you more than you could ever want to know about the narrator and nothing about anyone else. This is even more true for memoirs.

I've read memoirs and biographies before and they read exactly like this book - which is good if you like that style of writing. But if you're like me…

To me, this book feels like it glosses over things and keeps me at arms length at the same time. For example, within the space of two chapters, Isabella met, got engaged and married to her husband. We're told they interact, but we only get to see them meet and when he proposes to her.

I don't need to see the whole courtship - because that's not what this book is about - but supposedly she is in love with him. I never felt that. She goes through a very traumatic time and I never feel anything about it - and, in truth, kind of wonder why it was even in the book in the first place.

There's also way too much narration versus dialogue for me. I've always had problems getting through page after page of descriptions and introspection (which this book is heavy on both) with nary a conversation to break it up. For me, this serves to distance me even more because it feels like the character is not interacting with their world.

For me, the story wasn't slow and boring. (A common complaint I hear.) My problem was that it was too much. It fits in too perfectly with Victorian memoirs. That's what it's supposed to be, but I guess I expected a fantasy world memoir to fit a little less perfectly into out world.

Because, really, you take out the dragons, and this could be about a pioneering lady scientist in Victorian London. If you like that type of read - and you like dragons - this might be a great read for you. (Although, there was way too little dragons in this book, it being mostly about smugglers and demons.)

The ending 'resolution was notably awful for me. I hated it. I didn't hate the book though, and can definitely admire the unique mishmash of genres. Also, there were some wonderful moments in the story.

I love the obvious attention that went into creating these dragons. It was amazing and I loved the parts of the book that were a scientific study of them. (Which, uncoincidentally, I'm sure, were also the most fleshed out parts of the story.)

There was also a side trip into 'Draconic' ruins that I loved and wanted to know more about. (And that also reminded me very strongly of Egyptian deities and religion.)