Review: Marie Brennan – A Natural History of Dragons

Will you look at that cover! 2013 is not yet here but I am fairly certain it will remain my favorite cover of the year. The artist, Todd Lockwood, is responsible for this gorgeous image as well as the beautiful illustrations inside the book. Thankfully, the beautiful cover/bad book curse did not follow me to the end of the year and the story inside lives up to what its wrapping promises.
NOTE: I had published this review at the beginning of December already but the publisher asked me to postpone publication until closer to the book’s publication date. It’s just a little over a month now until it comes out and we can all hold that gorgeous hardcover in our greedy little hands.

Marie Brennan - A natural history of dragons

A Memoir by Lady Trent
by Marie Brennan

Published by: Tor, 5 February 2013
Illustrated by: Todd Lockwood
ISBN: 978-0-7653-3196-0
ebook (DRM-free): 336 pages
How I got it:
review copy via NetGalley

My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Not a day goes by that the post does not bring me at least one letter from a young person (or sometimes one not so young) who wishes to follow in my footsteps and become a dragon naturalist.

THE BLURB: You, dear reader, continue at your own risk. It is not for the faint of heart—no more so than the study of dragons itself. But such study offers rewards beyond compare: to stand in a dragon’s presence, even for the briefest of moments—even at the risk of one’s life—is a delight that, once experienced, can never be forgotten. . . .
All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know 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, yes, 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.


Isabella, Lady Trent, is recording her memoirs in this and – if her promise holds true – suceeding volumes. We enter her life as seven-year-old Isabella wants to know why all birds have wishbones, and promptly chops up a dead pigeon to find out. This charming, if very improper, little girl is easy to sympathise with and her struggles to rise above what society has planned for her sex are all too understadable. Isabella’s childhood is defined by her passion for dragons and even though her family do their very best to raise her into a proper lady, she never loses her love for dragon studies. When her husband agrees to take her on an expedition to the Vystrani mountains, Isabella will uncover far more than dragon anatomy…

© Todd Lockwood

© Todd Lockwood

Marie Brennan captured my interest with her whimsical voice. Set in Scirland (which I read as an analogue to Victorian England) and Vystrana, society forces a set of rules upon our heroine that stand in the way of what she loves. I always enjoy reading about scolars and scientists, about how they experiment and research and try to prove or disprove their own theses. And there is a good amount of studying dragons in this book. But there is also a mystery at the heart of it, conspiracies to be unraveled, and a somewhat larger-than-regular life to be lead. Isabella’s tale may not have been as adventurous and exciting as she leads us to believe in the first chapter but it was a fun journey nonetheless.

If you wish, gentle reader, you may augment your mental tableau with dramatic orchestral accompaniment. I suggest something in a minor and ominous key, as that is what went through my own head as I realized just how thoroughly I had outed myself as ink-nosed.

I felt the beginning of this book was much stronger than the time spent in Vystrana. While quick-paced, the second half of the novel could have been tightened even more. Since we spend so much time getting to know the humans Isabella meets, and rather little time interacting with actual dragons, I would have welcomed a bit more world-building. All we really learn of Dustanev, that Vystrani city, is that it’s on a mountain, that it’s cold there, and that its inhabitants speak in a Slavic sounding tongue. It was enough to build atmosphere and served for the story told here, but in order for me to understand the complexity of its politics, a little more explanation would be in order.

© Todd Lockwood

© Todd Lockwood

I cannot write a review without mentioning the stunning cover art and illustrations throughout the book, by Todd Lockwood. It fits the tone and theme of the novel perfectly, showing not only dragons in cool poses, but using a pseudo-scientific approach. The cover is by far my favorite but the illustrations inside the novel are equally as beautiful – and the reason why I will buy a hardback paper copy of this book once it’s published. A book this beautiful will make you happy just sitting on your shelf, and if your taste is anything like mine, it will make you happy reading it as well.

THE GOOD: Whimsical language, funny remarks by the narrator, and a love for science and dragons that touches the reader as much as the heroine.
THE BAD: Some pacing problems in the middle part, could have used more thorough world-building.
BONUS: Stunning illustrations that make it worth buying (even if you don’t like the story)
THE VERDICT: Recommended to people who liked Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell or the Parasol Protectorate. And dragons, of course.

MY RATING: 7/10 Very good


natural history of dragons wallpaper

A Natural History of Dragons – art © Todd Lockwood (click for different wallpaper formats)


3 thoughts on “Review: Marie Brennan – A Natural History of Dragons

  1. Carl V. says:

    You are right about that, this cover is stunning. I’ve always enjoyed Lockwood’s work and this is no exception. Sounds like one I’d enjoy owning just to have on my shelf to look at.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s