Sometimes it can be difficult finding a good fantasy book. You go looking for something Tolkien-ish, and all you find is cheap rip offs. You want a good story and all you find is two-dimensional characters with staves and headdresses. Basically, all you see on the shelves are mass-market paperback copies of one hundred books that are all exactly the same. The sci-fi/fantasy genre can be exceedingly difficult to navigate, but it is not without its rewards. Overjoyed are you when you discover Brandon Sanderson and Joe Abercrombie. But even though you enjoy the stereotypical fantasy novel with wizards and female warriors, every now and then you wish for something different, something that falls within the fantasy category—dragons, fictional worlds, plot twists—but maybe something minus pointy ears and fireballs. Something more “normal”.
I enjoyed Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent because even though it is technically a fantasy novel, it felt more like historical fiction—even if it is history from a made up universe. It is a nice break from the fantasy genre standard.
A Natural History of Dragons is an “autobiography” of Isabella Trent, who, now in her old age, is a renowned naturalist and author, particularly known for her life’s work with dragons. This book, however, takes the reader back to the very beginning of her career. We learn how her interest in dragons began in her childhood, how she came to marry her husband Jacob, and how she became involved in her first expedition to study dragons.
There are several things that make this story different from most fantasy books. One is the setting. Most fantasy novels take place in worlds that are equivalent to ancient civilizations or the Middle Ages—limited technology, magic, primitive beliefs and social customs. A Natural History of Dragons, however, moves this setting forward in time. It is not modern, but it has the feeling of a later time, perhaps closer to the Enlightenment, Scientific Revolution, or Regency periods. It’s a good change of scene, and one that I enjoyed. There are social conventions more align with the British television shows everyone is into these days, so that should be a draw.
Another difference that I greatly appreciated was the female/main character Isabella. In fantasy novels, almost every single female protagonist is a badass warrior. While this was something that was the main draw of fantasy literature for teenage me, after ten years of reading nothing but the same female warrior character over and over again in every fantasy novel, it was really nice to get a female protagonist who was strong without being an elf warrior who kicked all the boys’ butts.
Isabella is bookish with unconventional interest, i.e. dragons. Her nerdiness and desire to break with social conventions are cliché, but not in fantasy novels. Unconventional bookworms are plenty, but usually in contemporary of history fiction novels. While this personality does not make Isabella anything unique in literature overall, it makes her different than her contemporaries in the fantasy genre. She does not wield a weapon, though she is independent and curious. She has a strong desire to learn about the creatures that have captivated her imagination, and she is not afraid to travel far from safe, conventional society to get her chance. This makes her strong without wielding a sword, and it’s a nice change of pace.
The other unconventional thing I liked about this book was the relationship. First, it is not the overly passionate let’s make out in the forest kind of relationship you see in every other fantasy novel. *cough* Graceling. Isabella and Jacob’s relationship is semi-arranged, though they meet and decide to marry on their own. They are good friends who respect each other. The book describes no hot make out scenes, but rather demonstrates their love for each other by showing how much they care about each other when they’re hurt or in danger. It’s a more realistic portrayal of love. When you’re together for years, every second is not a moment of passion. Love also shows itself through small, day-to-day moments, and that’s what Jacob and Isabella share.
Isabella and Jacob also get married at the beginning of the book. They go through their adventures together as a married couple. Weddings usually come at the end of books, or not all, but I enjoyed reading about both of these characters going on their adventures together as husband and wife. It was a new way to do it.
The last thing I will say about this book is that the voice was very engaging. The cliché nature of Isabella’s personality, even though it is original in her genre, kept me from diving into the book headfirst. I read a little at a time, but the voice was what kept me coming back. The writing has a unique feel to it. Marie Brennan really made the book feel like Isabella’s autobiography. Her writing is humorous, clever, and engaging. Perhaps my favorite part of the whole book.
For anyone into the fantasy genre, or anyone looking for a different read, I recommend A Natural History of Dragons. For you die-hard fantasy nerds out there, you still get a dose of the good ol’ fantasy—dragons, schemes, etc. But I think most people will enjoy this new take on the fantasy genre.