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Ashana Lian's Fantasy Lab

Fantasy and Fantasy Writing from every angle: fantasy and sci-fi novels, films, artwork, superhero cartoons, children's and YA books, manga, anime, video games and comics. Put the microscope on 'Geek Culture'.

Saturday, 24 May 2014

Book: A Natural History Of Dragons by Marie Brennan

I am very eager to share this one with you! This review is a little bit late - I only just finished the book. This book is as sophisticated as it looks. That gorgeous cover... :3

Around the time I was reading Tigana, I spotted a Press Release for this book on the fantasy blog Bookworm Blues. It caught my eye because the competition is to design your own dragon, and the winner's dragon will be included in an installment of The Memoirs Of Lady Trent (So there's gonna be more than one book then... *sigh*) and get an advance reader copy of the third book! Sweeeet. I'd like to think that I would have entered if I had more time - I found out the day before and I had work the next day, so I decided to pass it up. But boy, what fun.

Okay soo... remember my warning? Never. Spoiler. Free.


A Natural History Of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent review

Image: Swantower
Author: Marie Brennan
Publisher: Titan Books
Published: February 2014
Fantasy Sub-Genre: Historical/Science Fantasy

"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..."

From Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, Lady Trent is known to be the world's preeminent dragon naturalist, who brought the study of dragons, into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we now know, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning and natural history 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 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.

This book is incredible, just to be explicitly clear.

Quick summary - Isabella Camberst, a world renowned dragon naturalist, writes a memoir of her life. We are taken from her curious childhood interest in dragons and anatomy, where she must keep her unusual pastime quiet, to how she manages to find a husband who doesn't disapprove, to intriguing discoveries and hilarious incidents, until she ends up on an expedition that leads to her staring a dragon in the face. Well. In the hind leg, really.

The decision to present this book in memoir-style gave it a realism I would never have expected in a fantasy book, even with the fancy names of places. Although, the fantasy names for places, in my opinion, were extremely good. Scirland is my particular favourite; it doesn't sound half as ridiculous as other's I've heard. A Natural History Of Dragons is one of the few fiction books I have read where I sometimes forget while reading that it's fiction. That last time that happened to me was reading The Fault In Our Stars.

Brennan achieved this in several ways. First of all, the narrator, Isabella, addresses the reader. Nothing startlingly new - Lemony Snicket does this in A Series of Unfortunate Events. But in addition, Isabella/Lady Trent talks about her other readers, her fans, and her previous published works which makes it so enticing to believe this is fact backed up by evidence.

Another thing - and this I love - is that there are no illusions about the nature of dragons; they are predators. They are not pets and they are not your friend. They are creatures with distinctive markings, behaviors and habitats; if you are lucky, you will see one. If you are unlucky, it will eat you. Despite crushing all of my fanciful (Eragon-ish, How To Train Your Dragon-ish) thoughts about Isabella maybe finding a talking dragon (gasp) and then they become friends and she can ride on its back (GASP! DAENERYS STORMBORN!), I much prefered how dragons are firmly established as king of the food chain in the animal kingdom and, although glorious, can and probably will kill you with one paw/claw. Paw? No, Claw.

There's one line I absolutely loved;
'Sheep eat the grass, wolves eat the deer, and dragons eat everything that doesn't run away fast enough.' (p.177)
That was hilarious. I loved that.

This book was pretty fluid, though I'd be lying if I said that wasn't one line, just one, that threw me; 'I retied the laces of my boots and shoved errant strands of hair beneath the Vystani handkerchief with which I had restrained their fellows.' (p.243) This was so odd. It's not that often trivial details are interweaved between dialogue, and it reads in such an awkward way. That whole sentence was so awkward. I also spotted one typo (hardly significant but ya know,) Part Three: '... a demonfrom the ancient past.' Because the words were run together I first read it as 'demon form', which made little sense, and I read it again and guessed maybe it was a typo. Heh.

Image: Geek Exchange

Look at that cover art. =D Wings unfurled, mid-stride. Isn't that magnificent?

I meant to say - the cover for this book captivating. It's how I knew I was going to buy it the moment I picked it off the shelf. It reminded me why I still love buying the hard-copy books.

Two more things I ad-d-d-dored-d-d. First, the notes at the start of each chapter. I liked being thrown a bit of info on what was to come; it made me even more curious and eager for the next chapter. The other thing is the illustration because... well because YAY, ILLUSTRATIONS! =D Aside from the fact that I rarely see images that aren't maps in fantasy fic, unless of course it's for kids, I thought it was so appropriate as Isabella sketches her findings and her interest in dragons is largely on an anatomical level. I loved seeing sketches of the various breeds of dragons. The incredible blend of science and history in together with fantasy give this book a groundedness that I rarely ever see achieved in fantasy writing. I can't praise highly enough. And I can be very critical about fantasy books, as I've demonstrated previously!

The setting and manner of the characters in this book reminded me of two things - the first for some reason is Pride and Prejudice, I think the way in which Isabella got herself a husband made me think of it. Now we're on the subject, I did adore Jacob as a character. He seemed awkward and distant at first, but as he developed, and of course his relationship develops, he becomes such a lovable character. The second is The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell, I think partly because her husband is called Jacob and partly because of the travelling to a foreign location thing.

Plot. I began to wonder where the story was going when I passed the halfway mark and they still hadn't left Drustanev. I realised, a little too late, that she wasn't going to retell all of her adventures in this one book! Which made sense and, admittedly, was probably better. But what that lead to, when they were too many obstacles stopped them from continuing their work, was basically... a murder mystery. Very much Who Dunnit. Er, of course, they didn't know there'd been a murder until later. I was surprised again when we were given nothing until the second-to-last chapter, right at the end, when everything unravels all at once. But it wasn't unsatisfying, there were enough details to hold my interest.

What I was appalled at, was Jacob's death. Colour me stunned. I just... was not expecting that at all of a character I so adored. Okay, Marie Brennan, you got me. I was shocked. It added a powerful emotional core to the novel (a bit late, but still powerful) because with such a small cast of characters already, the loss of a central character left a gaping hole, allowing me as the reader to feel a tiny shred of loss and confusion as Isabella Camherst did. Aw.

Finally, my favourite character! It was Isabella, interestingly enough; I sometimes get so frustrated by BS fantasy protags. My favourite dragon... hmm. It's tempting to say rock-wyrm. Also very tempting to say sparkling. But in the end, I have to say in particular the albino Vystrani rock-wyrm, or the 'runt' as they called it. The description of it was enchanting.

Image: Goodreads

I don't normally pledge myself to a series so early but I was just so impressed by this book, I will definitely be on the look out for The Tropic of Serpents.

The Verdict

5 Sha's!

Finally! I think, without knowing it, I have been waiting for this novel all my life. Teehee.

This book is the first Five so far in the Summer Fantasy Reading Challenge, and for good reason. I loved the way it was written, I love how realistically and seamlessly fantasy creatures were woven into the fabric of this reality, and I was just so taken with this astoundingly organic idea. Yes, yes, I know dragons have Been Done. But not quite like this... I assure you.

Ashana Lian .

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