While I had read reviews of The Natural History of Dragons and The Tropic of Serpents, they hadn’t really registered on my radar until I heard the author, Marie Brennan, speak on a couple of panels at FOGCon. She piqued my interest and I picked up both books. Because of circumstances, I read them out of order, which isn’t ideal, but didn’t damage things too badly (it did ruin one plot twist in The Natural History of Dragons).
I will probably add comments to the Fantasy Literature reviews, but I’m going to discuss the books generally here. I enjoyed them. They are not twisty, fast-moving action adventures. Brennan is playing with the narrative structure of Victorian travel writing, so the pace is a bit slow, and detailed. The narrative voice of Isabella Camherst is distinctive and inviting.
Brennan did a smart thing; she gave herself lots of room to maneuver by writing these as memoirs set down by Isabella much later in her life. Isabella wrote popular travel books in her youth about her various adventures seeking dragons; these are not those books. Now that she is old and socially secure, she is much more blunt about things; about travel, about society and about herself.
A Natural History Of Dragons gives us a bit about her childhood and her marriage to Jacob Camherst, and along the way tells us about Isabella’s world. She lives in a country that is much like Britain, certainly socially, even to having debutante seasons and high tea. It also has dragons and an intimation that there was, in pre-history, a race of draconic hominids. Brennan throws in some nice touches. The society has made progress with steam as motive power, but the expected technological boom is stymied by a dearth of iron. This explains certain aspects of the world and also sets the stage for the expansionism we see in the second book, The Tropic of Serpents.
Isabella is a smart, curious, capable woman of the upper classes, with little tact and no social graces. She chafes under the restrictions set for “proper” women in her society. When her husband takes her on a expedition to study dragons in a land similar to Romania, she is a useful member of the team, but creates some problems with the impulsiveness to which her curiosity leads her.
The “plot” in A Natural History of Dragons is a bit thin, but the writing and the characters are so engaging that I didn’t care. And I loved the dragons. In The Tropic of Serpents, the nature of the dragons in the equatorial area she is visiting took center stage for me. There are important political machinations of which Isabella is mostly unaware until the end of the book, that that worked well. By the way, bonus points to Brennan for using menstruation as a plot point. A plot point!
Very enjoyable books, and I look forward to the Voyage of the Basilisk, due out in August.