I was so excited to receive this: I love Marie Brennan’s work, and by coincidence my request was even approved on my wedding day. So of course I’ve hurried to read it, and I wasn’t disappointed at all — it’s part of Tor.com’s novella series, so it is short, but for me it avoids the issues of many other novellas by being both a whole story in itself but with scope for more stories. I think that’s partially what makes it satisfying: it leaves space for more without feeling unfinished, rather than tying things up neatly with a bow or leaving too much undone. I don’t think more stories are necessary: the questions the story poses are answered.
I like the set-up, and to say too much about it would probably spoil the story. The main character doesn’t know what is happening any more than the reader does, and what she remembers or realises is revealed at more or less the same pace as the reader discovers it. It’s an interesting world, one which I’d gladly read more of with other characters too, and Marie Brennan’s writing makes it a smooth and engaging read. This is probably among my favourites of the Tor.com novellas so far, and it’s not just because it’s Marie Brennan’s work — it’s also because it does a really good job with the form.
I actually picked this up before I ever got into the Lady Trent books, which I have loved so much, but I bought it again when Titan reissued it with a pretty new cover. Fired up with enthusiasm for Brennan’s work and knowing there’s a wait until the next Lady Trent book, I finally decided to read it. I was a bit daunted by the length, but in the end that felt perfect: just the right amount to dig into. The faerie court is interesting, and I enjoy the fact that Brennan kept it period and geography-appropriate in terms of which sorts of fae were present. Genre-wise, it feels more like historical fiction than fantasy, in the sense that I think the pacing and politicking belongs to a historical novel, and the fantasy is situated within that historical context (rather than the other way round).
To me, reading it that way, the pacing was mostly really good, though some of Michael Deven’s sections were frustratingly disconnected from the main plot — partly by their mundanity, and partly because Michael isn’t a major player or even properly clued in for a lot of the book. Lune’s sections work better because she is more aware of the situation on a macro-level, and though her goal is personal advancement, at least her eyes are open to the wider implications of what she’s involved in.
The only part that didn’t quite work for me was Michael and Lune’s relationship; I felt a little lukewarm about them individually, so it didn’t add up to much more with them together, and so parts of the plot which relied on their relationship fell a little bit flat for me. I was really more interested in some of the background, the history of Invidiana, the links between the courts, etc. But overall it still worked pretty well for me, and I’m excited to read more in this universe. I suspect it’ll get better as it goes along, too, knowing how much I enjoy Brennan’s most recent work.
I was dying for this book ever since I finished Voyage of the Basilisk, and I made sure to get hold of it the very first chance I got, and reread the other books in preparation. I’ve loved this series more and more with each book, and this one is no exception: there’s so much awesome stuff — more biology, more anthropology, more archaeology, more Isabella, and of course, more politics. It’s lovely to follow Isabella and Tom and see them finally getting the recognition they deserve, even if they still have bullshit to navigate as well.
For those following the series, this is so satisfying: we get the solutions to various riddles about dragons, and we also get developments in Isabella’s personal life. If you’ve been wanting to know how she becomes Lady Trent, or who her second husband is — well, here you finally find out.
The only disappointments are not seeing much of Natalie or Jake, in my view. I love the way Isabella supports and promotes other women, and I want more of it, and Natalie was such a big part of how that got started. And she’s asexual and an engineer and just… gimme more! Gimme more of all of them. But I do adore how much we get of Tom Wilker and how much he’s developed: how he’s come to trust Isabella and support her, and how he’s not going anywhere without her as his partner. I really, really love that aspect; the way they stick together, and use their respective strengths for the other’s benefit.
And if you were wondering, yes: we see more of Suhail. Not surprisingly, perhaps, since this book is set in Akhia, and Suhail was Akhian — that detail was, of course, no coincidence. And Suhail gets his Howard Carter-esque “wonderful things” moment, which is also a delight.
I think, the first time I read this, I may have observed that it’s beginning to push the bounds of credulity that Isabella (and dragons) should get tangled up in so much politics. I can’t say I actually noticed that, this time — it seems natural, when you just read the books straight through like this, because Isabella is willing to go anywhere and do just about anything for dragons. And of course, that means she’s in the least appropriate places for someone of her background (at least as far as her peers are concerned), and so of course she stumbles into things.
Besides, it’s Isabella. You’d be disappointed if you didn’t see her blundering into a plot or intrigue.
The story of Isabella’s time on the Basilisk is a lot of fun; the first half of the book is lighter, since it’s more travelogue-ish, until the point where the Basilisk is nearly wrecked and they have to go ashore. That opens up the world of the villagers they have to interact with, and involves a rather neat plot with a sort of third gender concept — on this island, those who are “dragon-spirited” have different social rules, and Isabella has to “marry” an island woman to calm down their fears about what she might do. Heal’li, the woman who helps her and guides her, is a pretty awesome character, and honestly I could do with a ton more of her. (And some note on whether “she” is indeed her preferred pronoun, or if, like Isabella, she’s bowed to necessity and allowed herself to be treated as female when she does in fact identify as male. I suspect not, given the way she embraces femininity, but it’s awkward to tell from Isabella’s point of view.)
And of course, Basilisk introduces new characters like Aekinitos (the “mad” captain, whose similarities to Isabella could have been used to good effect, though he was mostly in the background), Suhail the archaeologist, and even a rather more grown-up Jake (who immediately decides to become a ship’s boy, of course). I do feel the lack of Natalie, in this book; Abby isn’t much of a replacement, since she’s mostly there to keep an eye on Jake, both for Isabella’s sake and the sake of the plot.
I could probably go on for hours about all the things I love about this series — the societies, the natural history, the more general science, Tom Wilker, the enthusiasms of Suhail and Isabella — their sheer joy in what they do — the different dragons, the theories… the way that Isabella’s academic career unfolds: with some success, but by stages, as she makes a way for herself in a path barred for most women, and brings other women with her.
Don’t take my word for it, if you haven’t tried these books yet. There’s only one more to come after Labyrinth of Drakes (the fourth book), so it’s not going to be an epic series — and in fact, it reads all too quickly. I want more Isabella!
I “had” to reread this in preparation for the new book, but it was (of course) absolutely no hardship. I got into it right away, this time; before, it’d been a while since I read the first book, and I had to adjust a bit and remind myself of who everyone was. This time, it was all fresh enough to plunge right in, and it doesn’t disappoint. Brennan handles Isabella so well: we get to see all aspects of her life, like her relationship with her son (realistically painful, given the death of his father before he was born), her feelings about the religious/social stuff she has to bow to, her relationship with her family, and her attempts to make headway in the world of scholarship.
I was surprised when Marie Brennan mentioned that Tom Wilker was an incidental character who she didn’t expect to spend so much time with. For me, the books would be very different without Tom sharing Isabella’s dangers and trials. I have to confess that at one point I rather hoped he would be Lord Trent, though actually I do enjoy the intellectual friendship between them, and their support of each other without ever (well, almost ever) letting the fact that she’s a woman and he’s a man get in the way. People seem to find male-female friendship hard enough to grasp in today’s world, let alone a pseudo-Victorian one.
Also, yay for casual representation: Natalie Oscott does not, of course, have the words for it, but she’s asexual (not sex-averse, just it doesn’t drive her).
If you don’t love Isabella, I don’t know what to do with you. She’s resourceful, clever, but flawed as well, and her “deranged practicality” is exactly that, and if you weren’t reading her memoirs you’d be sure that she’d get herself killed that way. (Unless, of course, they do, and someone is reconstructing her memoirs from her notebooks, using her voice… It seems unlikely, but I’m suspicious-minded.)
One thing I would love to know: does Marie Brennan see Tom Wilker’s Niddey origins as having a direct analogue in our world? I’ve been picturing him as Welsh since, on one occasion when it said his accent was pronounced, he used a rather Welsh phrasing.
Reread this ready for the release of the fourth book in April (which I am very excited about and argh, can’t I just have it already?!). I didn’t love this the first time I read it, and now I’m not entirely sure why; I think I found it slow, but this time I tore through it. I guess it helps that I’m already acquainted with Isabella and I know what’s coming, and how straight-up awesome it all is. I described the series in a recommendation as “pseudo-Victorian lady becomes a scholar and takes on the patriarchy”, and that’s a pretty good summary, though it misses out on a lot of the extra stuff — the fine writing, the world-building, the attention to detail.
The thing I loved particularly, reading it this time, was Isabella’s relationship with her father and then later, with her husband. The way her father tries to find a way for her to be happy; the way Jacob slowly learns about her and learns to support her, learns to give her what she needs. The portrayal of Isabella’s periods of depression is great, too; the point isn’t belaboured, but it’s there.
And, you know, dragons. Dragons being studied, for science — the history/archaeology of an older civilisation that seemed to worship them — the glimpses of draconic intelligence and social life.
And despite the Victorian-ish tone of the memoir writing, it’s never boring; Brennan manages to capture the flavour of it without sacrificing fun. I really need to get my own copy of this.
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.