I don’t normally review short stories and such, but this one caught my eye and I love the cover, so why not? It’s available to read online, for free, here; it’s not a long read, not even really a retelling, but a glimpse behind the scenes. A clever take on a piece of mythology we often take at face value. It answers one simple question.
Why does Penelope weave and unpick a funeral shroud for her husband to delay the suitors?
She’s a clever woman, and this puts her in an active role, taking a hand in her own fate and even her husband and son’s fate. The passive woman of the Homeric epic steps aside to reveal a woman who takes her own fate into her hands.
It helps that the writing is lovely. I can’t pick out a single line or passage: it’s mostly simple, with some of the imagery and phrasing from translations of Homeric verse, maybe a bit of Ovid. It hits just the right note. I do kind of want more, just because I really like the way Brennan interprets the story.
I originally received this as an ARC, but then bought it anyway because I wanted a print copy so I could look at the illustrations better. I ate this up in a couple of hours. If you’ve enjoyed the previous books, this will give you more of the same: adventures, a female main character with a bright and scientific mind, interesting problems of taxonomy when it comes to dragons, politics, encounters with other cultures…
It very much mimics the style of memoirs written in the analogous time period in Britain, so I think you have to excuse what other people have read as a colonial tone. Scirland (Britain) is still an empire, here, and Isabella works under those assumptions as much as she assumes she can breathe air. She does meet other cultures, and treat them with respect, but sometimes with an air of private condescension that (to me) just works as part of her character, her driven nature, and the world she lives in. Your mileage may vary, but I don’t think it’s invisible to Brennan; I think it’s part of the character and world she’s building.
I’m enjoying the matter of fact inclusion of queerness in the story, too. As is Isabella’s wont, she doesn’t pry into people’s personal lives much, and the idea of queer people is essentially shrugged off as one of those things that happens, and not really her business. Even where it’s story-relevant, there’s only one moment where she does anything that one might call prying — and it’s understandable in the situation.
I’m afraid that despite Isabella’s best efforts, I do wish she’d up and marry Tom Wilker. I love the evolution of his character, too: the belligerent way he started out, the way he’s come to respect her and drop some of his barriers around her, the way they rely on each other, and of course society’s slow acceptance of the working class lad who has worked his way up. I was less taken with Suhail, because I just like the adversarial, sparring relationship between Tom and Isabella.
Oh, and you’ve got to enjoy the evolution of her relationship with her son. I love that he’s become “Jake” instead of Jacob, love that she’s found a way to relate to him, spend time with him, and be a mother to him, despite her initial rejection of the traditional mother-son relationship.
One thing that is getting hard to swallow: Isabella’s way of getting entangled in politics wherever she goes. Not just local politics, but politics with deep relevance to the crown. But it wouldn’t be such an interesting read without those complications.
It’s been ages since I read A Natural History of Dragons, which meant I was playing catch-up a little with the characters and the situation. I wouldn’t suggest reading it without reading the first book, since it’s an almost continuous narrative — but if it’s just been a while, well, you’ll probably be okay. I got there pretty quickly, once I remembered who all the characters were and how they all related to each other.
As with the first book, it’s fascinating to read this version of our own history, with a female natural historian front and centre. Given the trouble the likes of Mary Anning had, I understand the context a lot better now, though I do find myself thinking that, if anything, it’s a little too easy for Isabella to get where she wants to go. Still, I already criticised the first book for being a little slow, and there are plenty such drawbacks here as well. There’s another interesting meeting with different cultures, and some of the ways that that limits Isabella — but also one surprising way it gives her more opportunities.
I read this much quicker than I read the first book. It’s not exactly “unputdownable”, because you know that Isabella must survive to be writing the memoir, but it is compelling. I especially enjoyed the strengthening of Isabella’s relationship with Tom Wilker, and the way their characters clashed and meshed through the book. Natalie is a fun addition, too: a woman who, like Isabella, wants more than society (and her family) want to give, a woman who is in fact an engineer of some skill.
I’m having a hard time picturing Isabella’s adventures coming to an end after Voyage of the Basilisk, so I’m hoping that I’m misremembering that this is a trilogy… All in all, I’ve gotta say that these books have definitely won my heart now. I might have been doubtful about the first one, but I thoroughly enjoyed the second.
A Natural History of Dragons, Marie Brennan Review from April 12th, 2013
It took me a while to get round to finishing reading this, even once I was a decent way into it and knew I wanted to finish it. It’s a slow sort of book, one I suspect you will either get on with or not based on the narrator and setting. The idea is of a Victorian-era analogue in which dragons exist, and in which one young woman has the opportunity of a lifetime to go and study dragons scientifically after having obsessed over them all her life. The conceit is that it’s narrated by her in the form of memoirs, in a very Victorian sort of style.
It’s fascinating in its attempts to place a female character realistically in a society that is a Victorian analogue and have her still free enough to have this sort of story happen to her without it sounding far fetched — it mostly works, I think. Unfortunately it’s also pretty slow, and relatively uneventful when compared to so many other dragon books. I did get into it (or rather, back into it) eventually, but I can see it won’t be to everyone’s taste. I did, after all, also love Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.
The illustrations are, by the way, perfect. I spent quite a while examining each one in detail. And the world built up around this story is both frustrating in its close and quite naked similarities to ours and tantalising in details that aren’t comparable, or at least instantly placeable.
This week’s theme for Top Ten Tuesday is “top ten books you’re looking forward to in 2015”. Now, I actually don’t keep a very good track of this, so I might not manage the full ten, but we’ll see how I do…
Jo Walton, The Just City. Yeah, I know I have an eARC and I’ve borrowed someone else’s ARC, but I’m still looking forward to it being out and getting to discuss it more widely.
Maria V. Snyder, Shadow Study. More Yelena! I still need to do my reread, but these are totally my popcorn books and it’ll be nice to have more to look forward to. I might actually manage to read the Avry trilogy when I know there’s more awaiting me…
V.E. Schwab, A Darker Shade of Magic. I don’t know that much about it, but it sounds awesome, and I keep being recommended Schwab’s work.
Joe Abercrombie, Half a World. I still need to get round to reading Half a King, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to enjoy it, and this is another in the same world.
Catherynne M. Valente, Radiance. From reading the summary, I’m not quite sure about it, but I adore Valente’s way with words, so it’s going to be worth a try.
Naomi Novik, Uprooted. I remember enjoying the Temeraire books, and I love reading retellings of myths/legends/folktales/fables, so this sounds right up my street.
N.K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season.Gimme! Gimme!
Marie Brennan, The Voyage of the Basilisk. I need to read the second book, but still. Still. Badass Victorian lady!
Nicole Burstein, Othergirl. Just spotted this on someone else’s list of upcoming 2015 books. Sounds like fun, and there’s superpowers, sooo. I’m a sucker, I know.
Brandon Sanderson, Firefight. Another one where I still need to read the previous book, but shush. Superpowers!
Oof, I managed it. What’s anyone else looking forward to?
At first, having won this on LibraryThing FirstReads, I intended to wait until I read at least the first book of this series to read this, but it sort of surfaced on my ereader today and I thought, well, why not? If I don’t understand the world, I can always stop and save it for after I’ve read the other books. Actually, I found it a decent introduction to the world. You have to be ready to be pretty spry in your thinking to understand some of the rules that shape the world, but for me it came together fairly well.
The story itself is suitably novella-sized, and even though I did see the conclusion from a mile off in terms of the resolution to the larger plot, I enjoyed seeing the process of how it came about. I suspect Deven is a character from other books, and Lune as well, but while details of their relationship were lacking, their problem still worked as a drive for the structure.
One odd thing was the way the narrative jumps about in time. I caught on to the pattern easily enough, and the alternation made sense, but it could be a little disorientating. Overall, though, I enjoyed this one, and am looking forward more to reading the other books of the series.