Throwback Thursday: A Natural History of Dragons

Book cover: A Natural History of Dragons - Marie Brennan (a dragon, half anatomical study, half scales)Isabella isn’t a model young lady. She has an unnatural interest in dragons, so she’ll surely die an impoverished spinster. Can a young lady of intelligence and determination find a husband who will support her in pursuing her heart’s desires? Of course she can. Let’s study dragons, darling.

The Lady Trent novels have been on my radar for a very long time, and there’s really no reason I haven’t picked them up sooner. With Temeraire at an unsatisfying end, it was time for a new Muskedragon shared read, and A Natural History of Dragons has confirmed that Lady Trent will fill the draconic gap in our reading lives.

Because it’s sheer delight from cover to cover.

Telling a tale in the form of a memoir can kill the tension – after all, your heroine survives to write down her story – but the joy here is the journey as much as the outcome. It’s not whether Isabella will wriggle around the constraints of society to study dragons – of course she will – it’s how.

The second joy is the tone of voice: our narrator is Isabella as an old woman, long since past caring what society thinks of her, and mildly irritated by its constraints. Her wry sense of humour suffuses the narrative and she is by turns critical and even outright embarrassed by her past behaviour – and, hilariously, by her past writings, which we are urged not to read but not to take too seriously. No doubt this won’t work for everyone, but I was won over from the start.

Young Isabella is headstrong and devious, co-opting her brothers to steal books from her father’s library for her to study and dissecting birds in the stables. When she blackmails a stable-hand to help her dress as a boy and accompany the gentlemen on a dragon hunt, the deep vein of humour is well-plumbed: she doesn’t actually know how to shoot a gun. Needless to say, she’s not deterred – and when things go wrong, it’s a setback she’s more than able to take in her stride.

Which brings me to more joy: the men of this secondary world (while it has the trappings of nineteenth century Europe, it’s not just dragons that make the difference). Yes, this is a society of debuts and social control, where daughters are under-educated and married off with a dowry, but Isabella’s father is a pragmatic man who has no illusions about his young lady. I won’t spoil all the beats, but OH MY FEELINGS.

Similarly, when Isabella unexpectedly wins herself a husband – the right sort of husband, one with a library – he is repeatedly and deliberately wonderful in an understated sort of way. For all the social setting is regularly reinforced in many ways, this isn’t a story about how Isabella can break free from it. She is gloriously liberated and encouraged at every step, and I can’t tell you how wonderful I found it to read a historical fantasy that just let her get on with pursuing her dream.

It revels in (and largely rewards) her impetuousness, from the childhood disguise to dashing through a mountain village in her nighty as a young woman. In some respects it’s one scrape after another, punctuated by quiet moments, deeply felt, and of course the regular study of her favourite species.

It makes for positive, hopeful fiction, even while it shows off its heroine’s flaws, and it’s fun as well as funny.

That doesn’t mean it’s all plain sailing: there’s heartache here, too – even Isabella’s life isn’t entirely charmed. It makes for a heady mix of feelings, which I read with a full heart. I can’t wait to read the sequel.