With A Natural History of Dragons, Marie Brennan has done something that I didn't think was possible. She's written an adventure about dragons in an alternate Victorian world, while also realistically capturing what it's like to be a young woman who wants to buck convention and devote her life to science.
Illustration by Todd Lockwood
The book is written as the memoir of Isabella, Lady Trent, who has decided to share her scientific adventures with the world as an old woman. Thought the novel is set on an alternate Earth whose continents have different names, and where dragons encompass a range of dinosaur-like species, history itself seems largely unchanged. Isabella seems to have begun her career during a repressive nineteenth century where women are expected to be wives and mothers, not scientists. And she is looking back on that era from what seems to be a twentieth century perspective, where women have the vote and her own discoveries have advanced the place of women in the sciences.
We romp with young Isabella through the fields of her bucolic childhood, chasing insect-like creature that she'll grow up to classify as dragons. And we experience her growing hunger for scientific knowledge as she sneaks books on dragon anatomy and natural history out of her father's rich library — only to encounter crushing disappointment when she realizes that she will never be permitted to become a scientist like the writers she admires.
Brennan has created a Jane Austen-style bildungsroman about the life of a young scientist. With her narrator Isabella, she marries the pragmatic romanticism of Austen's best characters with the geeky adventurousness of golden age science fiction. Isabella is lucky enough to find an eligible bachelor with a good library, who is as enthusiastic about naturalism as she is. And eventually, he allows her to join him on an expedition to a Russia-like country where wild dragons roam free — and she can study them up close.
What makes this novel a true pleasure is Brennan's attention to sociological details like how a man and woman would actually navigate such an unconventional relationship. They are under scrutiny from high society, where both of them are going to suffer repercussions when Isabella's husband brings her along on his research expedition. Brennan is careful to alert us to the fact that her husband will be as shunned and judged as Isabella — this isn't simply a matter of the plucky heroine standing up to the world. Her husband's bravery is as important to the story as hers.
We also meet another man on the expedition who is from the lower classes, and his battle for recognition as a scientist is a kind of foil for Isabella's own. Both must struggle, for different reasons, to be taken seriously by the aristocratic, male scientist club.
But ultimately this isn't just a tale of science and social class. It's an adventure in which Isabella discovers her own bravery — and the men come to rely on her scientific acumen. At first, Isabella is just there to organize the men's notes and draw pictures (the book is beautifully illustrated with Isabella's pictures, created by fantasy artist Todd Lockwood). But over time, she becomes the scientists' most important asset. She crawls around mountainsides looking for dragon dens, and rescues her husband from the deadly ice breath of the dragons.
But the group's expedition becomes mired in both research setbacks and cultural difficulties with the locals. Ultimately, only Isabella is able to make the breakthroughs that carry the researchers forward, and help them discover the secrets of why dragons have suddenly started attacking humans. Along the way, they also make crucial discoveries about the marvelous anatomy of dragons, and solve a political mystery.
Though the novel starts a bit slowly, the adventure heats up once our characters arrive in dragon country and Isabella starts to come into her own. This is the first book in a trilogy, and Brennan isn't afraid to take major risks with beloved characters you might be hoping to have around for a while — and that is a good sign.
What's truly great about this novel is the seamless merging of fantasy themes and incredibly realistic scientific and social details. Come for the dragon adventure — because there's a lot of it. But stay for characters whose stories feel as real as Marie Curie's.