A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent is the first book, published in 2013, in a series of Lady Trent’s memoirs written by Marie Brennan. In this book Lady Trent, a preeminent dragon naturalist, sets out to begin writing her memoirs, beginning with her early life and her first expedition to study dragons.
I will begin with what I absolutely love about this book: I find the perspective it takes on dragons (a scientist attempting to study how they work) to be absolutely fascinating, and not one that I have ever read before. In fact, my decision to read this book was based purely on how good this premise seemed, and I was very glad to see that the premise is realised very well in the book itself. The narrative focuses enough on dragon biology and the relevant jargon to be fascinating and believable, but not so much that it would bog down the story.
What brings that perspective on dragons to life is the great writing. In particular, the voice of Lady Trent is very well done. Lady Trent’s obsession with dragons is made clear and believable, and that helps to make the perspective that the book offers on dragons even more fascinating.
Another reason that the voice of Lady Trent works so well is that she is a fully realised character: rather than focusing singularly on her love of dragons, Lady Trent also faces measurable societal conflict as a woman aspiring to be a scientist in a Victorian-inspired fantasy world. This aspect of the story is written in an engaging and believable way, and it serves to round out Lady Trent’s character, as well as to provide conflict and tension to the story.
Speaking of conflict, a lack of tension tends to be one of the main problem areas for the memoir genre. This is because of the lack of urgent immediacy to the events described (as they are explicitly being written down long after the events have taken place), and because you always know that narrator makes it through everything well enough to eventually write it all down. This can make memoirs lack the compulsive page-turning quality that you can find in other genres. This book mitigates these problems wonderfully. One of the reasons why is through the use of mysterious allusions to exciting future events that will take place. These take the form of explicit references by Lady Trent, as well as implicit ones in the narrative itself (how does she get to be known as Lady Trent when she is Mrs Camherst for most of this book?). These mysteries make you want to keep reading to find out how those things happen. While allusions to future events can often be annoying when reading a book (‘just get to the story already!’), the reason why I think it works here is because of Lady Trent’s fame in her world: she is only referencing events that her supposed readers would already know, making it believable that Lady Trent would reference them.
One thing in A Natural History of Dragons that doesn’t quite work for me is the final climax of the novel. Without spoiling any of the plot details, I was a bit disappointed with the extent to which the climax relied on the kind of action you would find in an action movie. To me, this was a bit too different from what the book’s opening promises to the reader: a scientist’s quest to study dragons with the sort of inter-personal conflict one finds in polite society.
I find A Natural History of Dragons to be a great book, and one which I would heartily recommend to others. Moreover, the originality of its viewpoint on a very classic fantasy element makes me excited about how much there is still left to explore within the fantasy genre.