Book Review: A Natural History of Dragons (The Memoirs of Lady Trent, #1) by Marie Brennan

Book Review: A Natural History of Dragons (The Memoirs of Lady Trent, #1) by Marie Brennan

Review copy provided by the author’s agent—Zeno Literary Agency—in exchange for an honest review.

Cover art illustrated by Todd Lockwood

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Series: The Memoirs of Lady Trent (Book #1 of 5)

Genre: Fantasy, High Fantasy

Word Count: 98,000 words

Pages: 334 pages (Paperback edition)

Published: 5th February 2013 by Tor Books (US) & Titan Books (UK)

A Natural History of Dragons is a very different kind of fantasy book compared to what I usually read, and it provided me with a refreshing reading experience despite its flaws.

This is the first time I read a book by Marie Brennan, and it certainly will not be the last. I’ve heard so many positive things about The Memoirs of Lady Trent and The Rook & Rose trilogy for years now. After some brainstorming sessions, my instinct has chosen to start The Memoirs of Lady Trent series as my first time reading Brennan’s books. The cover art by Todd Lockwood is beautiful, and hearing there would be interior illustrations by him inside the books—inside all editions—of the series intrigued my interest even more. But for years, I have postponed reading the series because, from everything I heard, it sounds like The Memoirs of Lady Trent has a low chance of compatibility with my reading taste. And for now, after finishing the first book, it is still too soon to tell whether The Memoirs of Lady Trent will become a favorite for me. I have mixed feelings about A Natural History of Dragons. However, almost everyone—including the fans—agreed that the first book is the weakest of the entire series. If that is indeed true, then it bodes well for me. I can definitely see the potential.

“I believed myself to be ready then; now, with the hindsight brought by greater age, I see myself for the naive and inexperienced young woman I was. We all begin in such a manner, though. There is no quick route to experience.”

The official blurb says the premise nicely without spoilers. All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, knows Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and dragons 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 and bone 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.

“One benefit of being an old woman now, and moreover one who has been called a “national treasure,” is that there are very few who can tell me what I may and may not write.”

A Natural History of Dragons is the first book in The Memoirs of Lady Trent series, and it tells the young adult age of Isabella’s life. I have a soft spot for a story told in a memoir or chronicle. My recent obsession, The Sun Eater series by Christopher Ruocchio, is a superb example of this storytelling method being cleverly used. Right from the beginning, Brennan nailed Isabella’s voice distinctly. A Natural History of Dragons seeks to detail the first spark of Isabella’s obsession with dragons and everything related to dragons. It also depicts the first few missions of Isabella as she tries her best, despite caging conventions toward women, to study dragons even if it means putting herself and the people around her through danger. She is fierce. Determined. Quite selfish. And will stop at nothing to achieve her dreams of learning about dragons. Surprisingly, the first half of A Natural History of Dragons ends up being the best portion of the book for me. The dramas and development, even though they did not actually involve any life-and-death situation, were so compelling. I was genuinely confident I would enjoy reading the entire narrative in A Natural History of Dragons. Alas… it did not happen.

“But coming to terms with one’s sorrow is one thing; sharing it with strangers is quite another.”

Oddly and unfortunately, the expedition in the mountains of Vystrana was, for lack of a better word, boring. Honestly, one of my biggest problems with the expedition and the second half is that it felt like there were no stakes involved in the narrative. A Natural History of Dragons is not a cozy fantasy. And yet, it is also not an epic fantasy. We readers know Isabella will make it through the adventure, but other than Isabella, there is a glaring lack of investable characters to care about. Jacob is an exception to this notion. True. But I’ll say this, Jacob was too good of a person for Isabella. Her selfishness and non-stop reckless action with complete disregard for Jacob’s position is something that she realizes, but seeing her keep repeating it is frustrating. Lastly, for a relatively small book, A Natural History of Dragons also felt too long for its own good. Even at 100k words, there were many scenes that felt disjointed and aimless to the goal.

“A husband willing to fund a library for his bookish wife is not so easy to obtain; most would see it as a pointless expense. You might, however, find one willing to share his library.”

As you can probably tell, I have a mixed reading experience from reading A Natural History of Dragons. Thankfully, the cover art and interior illustrations did help increase my enjoyment of the novel. Todd Lockwood is terrific at illustrations, to say the least. A Natural History of Dragons is filled with ten black-and-white interior illustrations by Lockwood, and each art serves a purpose. Whether it’s to visualize the various types of dragons or to show the locations of the narrative, I found myself captivated to turn the pages to see what the next artwork would be and how they would complement the texts. Below are three interior illustrations inside A Natural History of Dragons.

Pictures: Desert Drake, Wolf Drake, and Zhagrit Mat by Todd Lockwood

Aren’t they beautifully illustrated? It is tempting to read the entire series to witness Lockwood’s contributions. But that almost implies I am reading the series merely for that reason, which is false. Despite my issues with the second half, the first half and the potential for superior installments in the sequels are still there. Isabella’s narration voice is distinct. A Natural History of Dragons was a refreshing reading experience, too. Hearing that many readers are convinced and confident the first book is the weakest, I certainly will read the sequel before deciding whether the series is for me or not. For now, I will conclude by saying I had a good time reading A Natural History of Dragons, but as the first book of a series, I would have preferred it to have a stronger lasting impression on me.

“It’s—it’s as if there is a dragon inside me. I don’t know how big she is; she may still be growing. But she has wings, and strength, and—and I can’t keep her in a cage. She’ll die. I’ll die. I know it isn’t modest to say these things, but I know I’m capable of more than life in Scirland will allow. It’s all right for women to study theology, or literature, but nothing so rough and ready as this. And yet this is what I want. Even if it’s hard, even if it’s dangerous. I don’t care. I need to see where my wings can carry me.”

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