Oh, dragons. Everything is better with dragons in it – be it film, book or even baked goods. Dragons are just so much… fun. Some people love the idea of dragons because they are old and wise, and almost invincible. Others just want to see the world burn. Whatever works, you know. But since I belong to the Oh, let’s kick someone’s ass already category of people I simply couldn’t resist something called A Natural History of Dragons, could I?
I wanted to read A Natural History of Dragons ever since I saw it on a Waterstone’s shelf. But when I looked up its author, Marie Brennan and her other books I was slightly dubious. You see, I am not a fan of YA fiction. I would even say that in my life I have tried my best to ignore its existence as much as I can (although I got hooked on Harry Potter somewhere around 1998). And this whole affair seemed like a YA book to me. Luckily my boyfriend saved me from making the horrible decision of giving this one a pass and he got me a copy himself.
Sometimes I think he knows me more than I know myself, or at least understands when my moaning is just for moaning’s sake.
The very cover of A Natural History of Dragons is a piece of art in itself – now that I own three of these sweeties (and am eagerly awaiting the fourth one, already ordered from Amazon) I can admire it on my own bookshelf. The drawings are scattered around the entire book – for all of you anatomy lovers to enjoy. Yes, anatomy. Because, you see, A Natural History of Dragons is not a book about magic, knights and heroes. It is a book about science.
Before I go on to tell you how unhealthily enthusiastic I got about the science of dragons, being some sort of scientist myself, let me quickly describe to you the story of A Natural History of Dragons. No major spoilers, I promise.
In A Natural History of Dragons we follow a young lady, Isabella, whose sole life ambition is to study dragons. Unfortunately, in the Victorian-esque land she lives in neither dragons are a popular topic to study (and therefore well documented in hundreds of books in tens of libraries) or young ladies are looked upon kindly when they declare such… tendencies. However, somehow, through stubbornness or pure luck Isabella achieves the unachievable – and starts her long life of adventures full of discoveries, misfortune and not very friendly foreigners.
The whole series is a memoir – therefore it focuses less on the goals (since we are all well aware that these will be achieved; to some extent it does have this gothic novel vibe – YA adult and gothic novels?! I must have lost my mind! – of over-explaining and killing all possible suspense) and more on the road Isabella takes to achieve them. When we first meet her she is just a small girl, fascinated by dragon-like insects she collects frantically; and then we grow with her, and learn with her, and see her life not as it is but as it was, as she remembers it. Therefore, the book itself has a much more process-driven narration and, as a consequence, it is slower and more reflective than your regular dragon book. But you know what?
I love slow books.
My favourite books are the ones in which nothing happens whatsoever – but A Natural History of Dragons is not so extreme, don’t worry; I am not sure I could honestly recommend my favourite books to anyone. It has, however, a very non-action packed pace, which is not a common occurrence for modern fantasy and if you like your books to speak to you with short sentences mostly containing verbs and verbs only, this is not the book for you. I guess it makes it not an YA fiction as well – not only is it a rather lazy read, there is not much romance and all the drama is of a rather historic character.
A few words on Isabella then, shall we? I have read countless complaints as to how she is not feminist enough, how she supports elitists and imperialistic views of the world, how she just doesn’t… rebel. But you know what? I love the fact that she doesn’t rebel. I love the fact that she is a child of her époque. The book and film market is saturated with so called Strong Female Characters, which, to me at least, mostly are either Perfect and Invincible (because if someone has any human faults, it makes them weak, right?) or simply Badass Men with a female name without a penis. Isabella is not a Strong Female Character. She is just a strong woman; although ‘just’ is probably not the best word to use.
You see, in this mystical land wherein Victorian England rules a world full of dragons there lives a small girl who wants more than her society allows her to want – but she refuses to play by her own rules. She achieves her goals by obeying, accepting, making compromises. And she is not the martyr everyone expected – some of her actions are at the very least insanely rude when we apply a twenty-first century filter to it. But she is a woman of her time, not a construct ripped out of the fabric of the world Marie Brennan created to show people how bad the good old times were. Now that is a rarity.
Well played, A Natural History of Dragons, well played indeed.
I like Isabella as a person too; I have a feeling I’d hate her in real life, because most of the time I find her extremely annoying and naive, even her old self. But she is a terrifically written character, always true to herself, and no one said great characters need to be likable. I like Jacob too, and Natalie, and Lord Hilford, and Wilker, but Isabella stands out. No surprise, you may say, she is the narrator after all and we do live in her head. It is a well written head though; if it wasn’t she’d probably blend in amongst the other supporting characters real fast.
But A Natural History of Dragons has another unique selling point and this is the combination of science and fantasy mentioned above. Usually the approach is quite simple – we either go with magic or science, or a great battle between magic and science. A Natural History of Dragons is a book about the science of magic, if we do want to call dragons magical (I do). It is what it promises – a natural history book. On dragons. I’ll give you few seconds to wrap your head around that one.
Don’t expect great fights or dragon racing – Isabella’s mission is to document, describe and catalogue; not to live a grand adventure. Be prepared to read while she skins the beasts, learns how to protect their decaying bones and sketches their intestines. At the end of the day the reader should never forget that Isabella strives not for beauty but for knowledge – which is an interesting twist on this quite overused dragon affair.
There is also no magic other than the dragons themselves; and no fancy tech to counterbalance it. The world of A Natural History of Dragons may be fantastical but other than for awkward to pronounce proper nouns and a few dragons it does not differ greatly from the England of the past. Therefore, for a fantasy book is very dangerously close to a history book too – I’d even dare to say there are more social and political issues touched on in this book than there is fantasy.
Would I recommend it? Yes, and no. I think it takes a very particular reader to enjoy A Natural History of Dragons – even I thought that I do not belong to this category and I am still shocked that I do (gothic novels, YA, historic fantasy – you cannot get further from me, really, but didn’t I say a similar thing about Life is Strange?). This is not a book for everyone, well, don’t kid yourself, no book really is, but A Natural History of Dragons takes the word peculiar to a completely new level.
But this notwithstanding I’d say – go for it. There is a chance it is a fit for you and then you’re gonna love it. If it’s not, at the very worst you’ll get bored, as it is a reasonably well written piece of fiction and as such should not leave you appalled or outraged. Personally I am already eagerly awaiting the 4th volume premiere in the UK next week – and after I am done with this one, I am happy to join the crowd waiting for book number 5.