On Marie Brennan's “A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir of Lady Trent”
Oftentimes there is a marked dissonance between how a book tries to sell itself and the realities of that book. I don't believe anyone in particular is to blame here; attempting to sum up a hundreds-of-pages-long novel in 2 VERY short paragraphs must be a daunting task and I do not envy those whose jobs it is to write cover blurbs, but still this fact remains. Sometimes a book is simply not what you thought it was going to be.
Such was the case for me with A Natural History of Dragons. The blurb on the back cover is ridiculously short; only 4 sentences in all (all the better to leave space for the starred reviews!), which makes it very hard to properly convey what, precisely, this book actually is. Based on the blurb and the reviews, I knew it was written in a memoir style similar to that of the Victorian Age and I gathered that the setting would be much the same (and I welcomed a chance not to read ANOTHER medieval fantasy story), but what the cover fails to mention is just how low-magic the setting actually is. It makes mention of the fact that the protagonist is a dragon naturalist, which sets certain expectations about the content of the story; one should expect a bit more of a soft sci-fi approach to the subject matter than other fantasy novels would apply as one follows Isabella, Lady Trent, on her quest to document Facts About Dragons and record them in a scientific manner. However, aside from dragons, there are no fantastical elements to the story. In many ways, this is not a fantasy novel at all, it is merely a fictional memoir from an Earth AU where dragons are real. Now, of course, there are different places and marginally different cultures from our world, but the worldbuilding is so sparse that it does almost nothing to prevent the reader from simply inserting [closest real world equivalent] into the story.
So, there wasn't much fantasy and the worldbuilding was rather lackluster. Neither of those are REALLY why I came to a book about studying dragons in the wild, I wanted to read fictionalized accounts of natural science studying dragons. The great shame is that a ridiculously small portion of the novel is actually devoted to doing natural science about dragons. There are a few chapters devoted to a small expedition into the mountains which involves killing and dissecting a dragon for study but a large part of the novel is dedicated to exploring Fantasy Victorian Times in a very unengaging way. I think the book has 3 total asides where Isabella, Lady Trent pauses everything to write a paragraph about how she feels no shame in writing about sexual topics because “it's only natural,” while also ignoring the fact that she never so much as says the word “sex” in the entire manuscript. How transgressive! Multiple times conversations are paused to apologize for “coarse language” to the lady in the company and events are put on hold to argue about whether or not it would be “proper” for a woman to go and do such-and-such.
Now, I understand the basic idea behind these interruptions about Society and a Woman's Place Therein, but the novel doesn't put in the work to make it clear that these are things being criticized. They are merely presented as The Way Things Are. Isabella, Lady Trent herself seems quite beholden to various standard Victorian hangups, going so far as to refuse to enter the sauna around local women. So it reaches a point where the reader is left to wonder whether we are meant to understand these as criticisms of Victorian social mores in the first place or whether we should simply accept them as a matter of course and not think too much about them.
The novel, as I found out near the end, is actually supposed to be a mystery story, not a fantasy story NOR a natural science field journal, but while in retrospect I can absolutely see where the seeds of the mystery were being sown, I did not, in the moment, pick up on them and say “Hm, this is an intriguing puzzle! I bet we will see it solved by the end!” Mostly I reached the end, saw the mystery solved with almost no actual legwork put in by anyone, and realized “Oh. This was a mystery story.” Not exactly the most satisfying conclusion to a 300-page mystery.
Honestly I don't have tons to say about this one. I could talk about how gross and casual the book was about colonialism, how there was a lot of casual racism and xenophobia to deal with, how frustrating it was to listen to men be very misogynistic with a woman standing in the room, but I feel like all those things get summed up when you read the phrase “Victorian Times.” Ultimately, this was a book more concerned with Victorian Times than it was with dragons.
Can't say I agree.