The plot of A Natural History of Dragons is a fairly simple one – Lady Isabella Trent, the famous old dragon naturalist, is writing a series of memoirs about her great adventures studying dragons. This is the first. The novel recounts Isabella’s experiences as a precocious, scientifically minded child, which include reading her father’s scientific books in secret, dissecting a dove with her brother’s pen knife, and dressing up as a boy to go on a dragon hunt. Later, as an ambitious, newly married 19-year-old, she slyly manoeuvres her husband Jacob into joining an expedition to study dragons, then fights to get permission to join the expedition as an artist, despite how very, very improper it is for a woman to do such a thing, or for a man to indulge his wife in this way. The expedition takes them to the foreign land of Vystrana, but it turns out to be even more dangerous than they expected, not because of the dragons, but because of the people.
I need not say very much about the worldbuilding either – Isabella is from Scirland, which is Victorian England, with all its stuffy restrictions regarding class, gender and propriety. Vystrana is essentially Eastern Europe.
So, it’s the world we know + dragons in a YA-ish adventure with a good dash of mystery. It’s a nice story, and I know many readers have loved the setting, but I was hoping for a bit more fantasy in my fantasy, and not just because I value its inventiveness. The Victorian culture got on my nerves. Admittedly, this is partly because the worldbuilding is quite well done. Brennan/Isabella never misses an opportunity to tell us how men and women are expected to behave, what women are not allowed to do and what society thinks of them if they do it anyway, and what the upper class expects from their servants. Lady Trent, writing as an old lady about her younger self, has a very prim and proper tone that alone will never allow you to forget what period you’re in (or rather, what fictional version of an actual period you’re in). It’s as Victorian as a Charles Dickens novel, and far, far easier to read.
But, but, but… This is fantasy, so why does it need to cling so tightly to reality? More importantly, why does it have to reproduce the unappealing sexism and classism that defines the society it’s modelled on? I’ll tackle the class issue first. Isabella and Jacob are from the upper class, and the expedition’s leader, Lord Hilford, is an aristocrat. For all their bravery in chasing after dragons, I don’t think they would get anywhere if they didn’t have servants to carry their bags and cook their meals. Isabella came across as quite a brat when dealing with her personal servant, Dagmira:
she was supposed to be my lady’s maid. I had been afraid of that. She would need to be educated in her duties, starting with the purchase of a bell I could use to summon her when I awoke. I laid that aside for the moment, however, and held up my hand to silence her.
It annoys Isabella that Dagmira, who is a peasant from a small rural village in Vystrana, doesn’t understand the needs and expectations of a well-bred lady from Scirland. She learns the local language mostly so that it’ll be easier to give Dagmira orders. She had expected that there would be a shortage of servants, but is a little shocked to find that there is a shortage of furniture and she doesn’t even a wardrobe to hang her dresses in, so she’ll have to live out of her luggage (the horror!). Again, the characterisation here is excellent, and I do like that Isabella isn’t perfect – she has a lot to learn about travelling, and has yet to have her mind broadened by it. She frustrates me, but then again, imperfect characters are bound to do that. So I’m not a fan of the classism here, but I accept it as part of the story.
I am less forgiving of the sexism, which has more consequences for the story and the reading experience. I can understand that it does a lot to enhance Isabella’s character. As far as her achievements are concerned, it makes her more heroic to know that she overcame all the gender obstacles that stood in her way. However, we’re told at the very beginning that studying dragons is not for the faint-hearted and that little was known about them when Isabella went on her first expedition, so isn’t it enough for her to be a pioneer in this field? That alone makes her courageous, dedicated, and highly intelligent. Why must she battle society as well? Does it make a better story? I’m not sure it does.
I’ll admit that I say this not because I feel sorry for Isabella as a character, but because of how it affects me as a reader. Brennan pushes this feminist agenda very hard for the entire book, and the constant sexism gets tiring. As a product of her society, Isabella irritated me too. She might be the exceptional woman, but Brennan is mindful of where and how she grew up, so Isabella is very aware of propriety and diligently observes it at times, often sounding a bit like a textbook on good behaviour even when she’s being ‘bad’. The plot is also slowed down by this social issue – before Isabella goes anywhere, she submits to her mother’s wishes and spends some time looking for a husband. She marries the first man to catch her eye (which speeds things along, but is a tad convenient), and luckily he’s the kind of person who shares her interests and lets her read what she wants. This is supposed to be heart-warming, but it makes me cringe. Jacob wins the reader’s favour simply because he (usually) treats his wife like an adult instead of a child. It’s wonderful of him in this context, but I can’t shake the knowledge that he gets praised for doing the bare minimum.
I’m also a bit tired of this kind of story, where a smart, brave woman is held up as a marvel because, oh my god, she’s a woman but not a doormat. I wasn’t inspired, only annoyed. Of course, we’re hardly past all of this in real life, where many people still hold very traditional ideas about gender, but speculative fiction gives us the opportunity to imagine a better, more interesting society. I think Marie Brennan wasted that opportunity.
On the positive side, she did a great job depicting Isabella as a person who aspires to be everything that society says she should not be, and dedicates herself to that goal. In fact, I have to admit that the novel as a whole is well executed, regardless of my criticisms about Brennan’s creative choices. Isabella’s stuffy style could have been difficult to read, but in fact it flowed very quickly and easily. It’s also worth noting how well her character is written as someone with a very scientific mind, who tends to have crazy ideas (well, crazy in her society anyway) that she acts on in a very practical manner. The main plot involves not only studying dragons, but unraveling a mystery involving a missing man, a group of smugglers, and strangely aggressive behaviour from the dragons. The science is light but engaging, and of course there’s the beautiful artwork by Todd Lockwood to pull you deeper into the story. Personally, I’m not intrigued enough to read the inevitable sequels, but I don’t doubt that most readers will be charmed.