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I almost didn't finish A Natural History of Dragons. Here's what the back cover says:

You, dear reader, continue at your own risk. It is not for the faint of heart—no more so than the study of dragons itself. But such study offers rewards beyond compare: to stand in a dragon’s presence, even for the briefest of moments—even at the risk of one’s life—is a delight that, once experienced, can never be forgotten...

All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.

Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.


Interesting, right? Victorian lady off on dragon-hunting adventures? Natural history? ADVENTURES HUNTING DRAGONS?!

The dragons. The dragons. I'm in it for the dragons.

I'm starting to think I should stop reading Victorian-set literature (as separate from literature written by Victorians, is what I'm trying to say) because with few exceptions, the overall tone is maddening. I'll get into that at the end of the review.

The novel begins in Isabella's youth, where her interest in dragons begins: she finds a sparkling in the garden, a tiny dragon. At that time sparklings were classified as insects, and dragons were not well studied because of the difficulty in preserving them. Any specimen that a hunter or a researcher brought down and shipped home would have decayed into dust or fragments in a few days. However, what little is known of dragons fascinates Isabella, and she concocts many schemes to learn more, like getting her brother to pilfer books from her father's library.

Isabella chafes at the restrictions on her life. Although it's called Scirland, the novel is very clearly patterned after Victorian or Victorian-adjacent England; as a young woman of breeding, she mustn't do this and that etc, sneaks out in boy's clothing and nearly gets herself killed trying to see a dragon, etc etc, her father puts together a list of eligible gentlemen to marry (he's starred the ones who own a copy of "A Natural History of Dragons", the first book Isabella read about them), tries to push down her interests but ends up talking to gentlemen about her dragon fixation, etc...

Honestly, I'd rather have skipped all that. Nineteen-year-old Isabella isn't very interesting, vaguely pitiable perhaps, but the interesting part is when she marries her husband--a man with a keen interest in dragons as well--and she maneuvers him into going on a trip to Vystrana and bringing her with him. By "maneuvering" it's not as exciting as it sounds, but the important part is they are off!

And when they get to Vystrana, they discover that dragons are killing humans, in a rather shocking fashion: their dragon researching party is attacked on the road and the coachman badly hurt. They settle themselves into the village (where Isabella is, of course, contemptuous of her rustic maid). The party then runs into trouble; the contact they had arranged to meet, who would show them where the dragon lairs and such, has disappeared.

Then came the point where I almost quit the book entirely, and only a very boring house party meant I got past it: Isabella can't sleep, so she goes to stand by the window so as not to disturb her husband's sleep. It is very cold; a few pages back, she implies it's something like spring (the months are named differently) but there's lots of snow, she doesn't like the cold, and so on. At the window, she sees two people trysting, then the man leaves, and then ISABELLA FOLLOWS HIM OUTSIDE IN HER NIGHTGOWN AND ROBE.

She predictably gets kidnapped immediately (by smugglers) but manages to escape by striking a bargain: she will make the dragons stop attacking--she'd explained breathlessly that she was there as part of a dragon-studying group--and they let her go in the morning. Part of her bargain is that they will show them where the dragons' lairs are, and that is how the dragon party get started.

I'm mostly stuck on one point. After all, brainless protagonists occur everywhere (they always conveniently advance the plot.) But why didn't you put on some shoes and a coat to go outside? You just complained it was cold and no you were not a delicate flower because you didn't like cold, you preferred the heat!

Isabella also suggests some pretty brainless schemes, like volunteering to go alone on a days-long trip to fetch people or search. Number one, she still hasn't learned to shoot, in an area where dragons are targeting people. Secondly, the rest of the party always goes out in two or more people, possibly because dragons are attacking people from the sky, not to mention the mountainous surroundings which produce their own hazards (her husband slipped and fell into a hole earlier.)

My frustrations with Isabella aside, the last part of the book was actually very well put together. The smugglers, the intransigence of the village and the village's boyar (lord?), the dragons' sudden attacks on humans, all come together in a surprising but altogether sadly too plausible explanation. Although I wish there was a bit more emphasis on what they'd discovered about dragons--they'd killed one and Isabella had sketched it while the others took measurements and other notes--the ending overshadows some of it with good reason.

Honestly, I think this novel would not have lost anything by being set in a time period less restrictive. Isabella triumphs over assumptions--bah, not really, she maneuvers herself round them and then gets herself into trouble all over the place. I'd rather the whole angst about her life be cut out (the whole main beginning, I mean, the harping about what girls should be like and her dislike of that); I think the drama in Vystrana was much stronger and much more interesting. I can't believe I'm saying this, because I love historical fiction, but I'd rather this novel were set in present day and Isabella could just study to be a biologist and voyage to Scirland with a team of people, no angst required. Wouldn't that be awesome? Brennan does well in Vystrana, but not well in Scirland, where it's just the same Victorian tropes done exactly the same way they've always been done.

The novel was sometimes uneven regarding consequences; Isabella often gets off things very lightly, like with the smugglers. And to be perfectly fair, Isabella does think she's acting badly (it's written as a memoir, and often has intrusions from older Isabella) but some of the stuff she does are clearly dangerous and idiotic and she has no idea. 7/10

---

I'm gonna stop reading fiction set in the Victorian period (unless it is written by Victorians.) There's this arch, coy voice which is SO ANNOYING, as well as the apparent prevalence of "I'm not like those girls" (let's punish other people for conformity) and "all mothers are daft", both of which drive me up the wall.

(OH MY GOD IF YOU DON'T KNOW HOW TO PROTECT YOURSELF OR STAY OUT OF TROUBLE WHY DO YOU MANEUVER YOURSELF INTO THESE SITUATIONS.)


Crosspost: http://silverflight8.dreamwidth.org/137451.html.

Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
dhampyresa
Sep. 11th, 2013 08:14 pm (UTC)
I was thinking of picking this up, so thanks for the review. Iirc, a boyar is a Romanian noble.
silverflight8
Sep. 11th, 2013 08:42 pm (UTC)
Yeah, someone linked me to the boyar article on Wikipedia--I guess I've never looked into titles in that area! I should get better at that; I missed quite a few linguistic twists in this novel.

I'm glad! I usually review things way after they've been published, so this is kind of unusual :)
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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