A Natural History of Dragons is the story of a young woman trying to overcome the prejudices of her age in order to become a scientist. It's set in a fantasy world similar to Victorian England (but with the inclusion of dragons) and follows a fictional memoir format, with Lady Trent looking back on her early life and first scientific expedition. Isabella (Lady Trent) recounts her childhood and how her fascination with her father's library led to her passion for science and dragons. After a chance encounter with a dragon as a young child, she is keen to devote her life to studying them. But in this world, the role of a young lady is to act politely ignorant and find a husband, something Isabella finds herself chafing against. It's only when she meets a man who is a scientist himself, and supportive of her radical-for-the-times ambitions, that she is able to make contacts and secure a place on an expedition to the dangerous mountains of Vystrana, where she hopes to catalogue and understand dragons of all species.
I really enjoyed A Natural History of Dragons. It's set in a Victorian-type world, and the writing style harks back to that era too. It reminded me a lot of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell in this regard, and it's something I definitely appreciated. Isabella's voice felt authentically Victorian, and I loved the slower pace, although this is something that might not be for everyone. I've read quite a bit on the history of science and I loved the little echoes of this process in Brennan's book, it felt as though this all could have happened, if only dragons were real. We get to read about the 'scientific' reason why dragons can fly, despite being so heavy, and what their wings are made of. Little details like this can really make a book for me.
Of course, I loved the theme of a woman overcoming the prejudices around her, and it was interesting to see the contrast between Isabella at an early age, and Lady Trent writing her memoirs, sometimes reflecting on the naivety of her younger self. A Natural History of Dragons is the first in a series, and I can't wait to read the next installment. The only problem with the book, and the reason it wasn't a 5 star read, was that the secondary plot involving smugglers and deception in the village felt a little bit forced to me and didn't engage me. I wanted to read about dragons and science, not worry about who wanted Isabella out of the Vystrani village. Still, I'm very much looking forward to getting my hands on the next volume.
First Published: 2013
Score: 4.5 out of 5
- Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke - A story of magicians set in Regency England, where everything is the same but magic exists. This one has a similar writing style and is one of my favourite books, I really need to revisit it soon.
- Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier - Historical fiction centred around Mary Anning, who discovered dinosaur fossils along the Dorset coast of England. This has similar themes of a woman trying to break into science, and is an excellent read.