2013’s A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent is the first volume in Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent series.
Scirland is not known for encouraging the intellectual interests of its women — not even its high-born women. Isabella, the future Lady Trent, is one of the determined few who prevailed despite all the pressures to focus on the lady-like pursuits she finds boring beyond words.
Why focus on tedious social gatherings when she lives in a world full of natural wonders like dragons?
Determination is not always sufficient. Isabella was also lucky; one brother was an active ally in her early forays into amateur science. Her father occasionally provided her with relevant texts. Perhaps her greatest stroke of luck came when she met Jacob Camherst. Where other men might be put off by Isabella’s interest in dragons, Jacob shares them. He is perhaps the most ideal mate Isabella could have found. Small wonder that marriage soon follows their first meeting.
Scirland has few native dragons. Vystrana, a far-off land of which Scirland knows little, has a comparative abundance. Despite diplomatic barriers, Maxwell Oscott, Earl of Hilford, organizes an expedition to Vystrana. Jacob joins the expedition. Somewhat to Jacob’s surprise, so does his determined wife.
The village of Drustanev is nestled in the Vystrani highlands, a region as bleak as it is desolate, as forbidding as it is isolated. It is also the proud possessor of a climate that makes Scirland’s look inviting. What Drustanev does have is a comparative abundance of dragons.
Lamentably, said dragons have lately taken to attacking humans. It’s a chance for the natural historians to endear themselves to the locals. All they need do is discover why the dragons’ behavior has changed … without getting themselves killed in the process.
Although dragons are for the most part considered characters to be found in fantasy, although this is set in a secondary world, I am not sure that this book is fantasy. At least thus far there does not seem to be any magic. Perhaps the so-called dragons are simply a species of flying archosaurs?
By setting her story in a secondary world, the author sidesteps the issues that distract me when reading Novik’s dragon series. One does not have to wonder how a world with dragons (a major departure from our timeline) would be populated by the same people who lived at approximately the same time in our history. No historical characters here, no indeed. That said, the world in which Lady Trent lives is otherwise a simulacrum of 19th century England.
This novel lives at the intersection of several genres.
The first genre: thrilling tales of women scientists who by great effort overcome the prejudices of their society. Real life examples would include figures like Mary Anning, Caroline Herschel, and Mary Ward. In real life, all too often such tales recount how the women’s discoveries were appropriated (or suppressed) by their male colleagues. As the great joke goes, Watson and Crick’s greatest discovery was Rosalind Franklin’s notes. The author is on Lady Trent’s side and so one can hope that her ultimate fate will not be to be forgotten after some male researcher lays claim to her work.
The second genre: the glorious tradition of curious, energetic naturalists blundering into regions with which they are unfamiliar, in quest of animals with whom they hope to become more familiar. Examples abound from Wallace to Durrell. Curiosity and enthusiasm appear to confer an odd sort of immunity on these intrepid adventurers. Or perhaps the immunity is an illusion; perhaps naturalist memoirs demonstrate survivorship bias. Those adventurers who ended up in the belly of a tiger tend to write fewer memoirs than those who did not.
The combination of the two genres works well, in large part due to its amusing narrator, Lady Trent. Having survived many adventures (of which this is merely the first) she relates her history in a manner that is both engaging and endearing.