A Natural History of Dragons

by Marie Brennan

Rating: ★★★

A Natural History of Dragons details the early life of our fictional narrator, who is a woman brought up in a Victorian-era society within a fantasy world which contains, as you might expect, dragons. As you also might expect, our narrator is involved in an expedition for an early stage of the study of dragons, combining adventure and mystery with scientific exploration.

The writing is managed admirably. When Brennan makes her society a mirror of our own history, she doesn't shrink from confronting that history in its full implications, particularly where it concerns the considerable social barriers for a young woman who is interested in science. And it is science -- don't let the fantasy setting fool you -- which is the central focus of the book. The penetrating curiosity and enthusiasm of the narrator, combined with the commentary of the older and wiser character writing the book, make this novel a great advert for science -- particularly for young girls. It realistically depicts everything from the foundational inspirational texts to the political dimensions of science, which is quite a feat for a fictional subject.

The fantasy setting is more than mere attention-grabbing dressing which Brennan deals with, though. It provides a real function in that the creatures that Brennan describes are genuinely unknown to us, so we can be 'brought along' on her natural history investigations in the truest sense, seeing the puzzle-pieces that she sees as the group attempt to understand the nature of these particularly difficult-to-observe creatures.

Some of the bits outside of the science felt less than ideal. While the necessity of our narrator getting married is part of the delightful realism, we see a somewhat schizophrenic attitude from her on this subject, being both enthused about her supportive and interesting husband and at the same time seeming to view him largely as a tool for her own interests. His death, essentially caused by her, seemed somewhat inevitable, and we cannot help but note that it gives her considerable freedom for future excursions. There are a number of sequels, which I am ambivalent about at this stage: the series looks likely to be engrossing and pleasing, but I am not certain I will gain much from reading it. I have started to become suspicious of fantasy series which demand so much from a reader and often sink in quality a few books in. One positive result of A Natural History of Dragons was that its description of the exploration of nature prompted me to read The Voyage of the Beagle, and I think I am more likely to continue in that direction.