Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Book Review Club: A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

 (This is the February 2014 edition of Barrie Summy's book review club. For the complete list, click the icon at the end of this review.)

Look at that cover. Go ahead. Look at it. Study it. They say we're not supposed to judge a book by its cover but the cover is the first thing we see. And that cover right there stopped me cold. How awesome is that painting by artist Todd Lockwood. That was all it took for me to stop and read the dust jacket. Then, having read the synopsis, I was there.

A Natural History of Dragons is a fictional memoir of Isabella, Lady Trent, dragon naturalist. With the conceit that there are too many letters asking about various details of her life to answer, Lady Trent agrees to pen her memoirs.

I always hesitate to zero in on catchy summations, a member of my book group did it for me: Downton Abbey with dragons. I would tend to agree, but will point out that it's definitely season 1 of that show (circa 1912) rather than the current season (circa 1920s). If I were to place this tale in our history, I'd probably say around 1897 or so.

Author Marie Brennan sets her story in a fictional, fantasy world that is quite similar to ours. In fact, for a long time, I kept trying to find analogs. Isabella's home country is clearly England, but the rest are hidden just well enough that I could never be sure. At the beginning, I basically wished that Brennan really had set her story in an alternate version of our world, but I warned to the fantasy one. It lent the tale a once-upon-a-time quality.

Isabella, when the story opens, is a teenaged tomboy in an era that frowned on tomboys. In the world, when a dragon dies, it's bones disintegrate in the air. But as a girl, she preserves a sparkling, or small dragon. That experience, along with her reading of A Natural History of Dragons (a book within this novel), her lifelong fascination with dragons is born. While a willful young lady who chaffed (yet accepts) the strictures of her society, she finds a young husband who also must adhere to societal norms but recognizes his wife's longing. With the permission of a lord (see how closely this world resembles ours?), Jacob and Isabella Camherst journey to faraway Drustanev to find and study the local rockworms, or dragons.

This book is basically one of those Victorian era adventure novels of exploration, discovery, and science. The tale is all first person and follows Isabella's journey. She accompanies the expedition as an artist who will draw all that they find and as a compiler of notes. For those of you who read the digital or printed work--I listened to the audio--each main section of the novel has additional illustrations if dragons and the environs. They are splendid and really gave this novel it's vintage feel. But there enough of a modern sensibility for  us 21st Century readers. All the guys in my SF book club enjoyed the novel to some degree and I will definitely seek out the next novel in March.

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