Told in the style of the 19th Century novel, A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent (Macmillan Audio) by Marie Brennan – interviewed by me and Tim Ward on the Adventures in SciFi Publishing podcast – is a unique addition to the canon of fantasy novels featuring dragons. The audiobook version is the perfect way to enjoy the narrative, as it lends itself to performance, demands to be read aloud and is all the more enjoyable for hearing the plummy English accent of the eponymous narrator.
This first book in the quintet is set in an alternate world in which the narrator, Isabella, the future Lady Trent, grows up in Scirland, which has the feel of Victorian England.
Lady Trent’s memoir begins when she is a teenager. Young Isabella is fascinated by the sciences, and dragons in particular. However, her society and, to some extent her parents, actively discourage her from going too far down the route of learning, as it may make her less appealing to most men as a marriage prospect. Unlike other young women her age she cannot content herself with what society regards as more feminine pursuits.
The memoir, especially in the early chapters, is full of wit and whimsy. For example, Isabella describes a dress she has to wear for a party as doing “interesting things with my bosom” and though she enjoys horse-riding now and again, she cannot get too enthusiastic about that, mainly because horses “lack wings.”
When Isabella finally persuades her new husband Jacob to allow her to accompany him, ostensibly as a filing clerk, on a dragon research expedition to Vystrana, she’s thrown into a series of perilous adventures, involving not only dragons, but bandits and a dangerous religion. Her relationship with her feisty lady’s maid, Dagmira, keeps her on her toes, too. Dagmira personifies the cultural differences between Scrirland and Vysrtrana beautifully. Isabella and Dagmira’s sometimes terse and always entertaining banter are staging points in a slowly evolving relationship which is a perfect counterpoint to the dramatic adventure at the heart of the second part of the novel.
That being said, I had a few minor reservations here and there, in that some passages felt perhaps a little long drawn out, while others felt slightly faster than I would have liked—but that’s only to my personal taste.
While the author captures the style and the tone of the Victorian novel extremely well, this is no pastiche, but a cleverly-wrought and rivetting first volley in what should prove to be a trememdous series.
Kate Reading’s performance of the narration is mesmerising. Her English accent is perfect and she captures the tone and character of the ageing Lady Trent beautifully, as well as conveying the younger Isabella with tremendous verve and sparkle. In addition she handles the multiple voices required for the tale, both male and female, with a technique which makes all the characters completely distinct and believeable. Tim Ward, who interviews Marie Brennan with me for the Adventures in Scifi Publishing podcast, wondered about how feasible it is to listen to an audiobook version of a long fantasy novel, because of the big cast of characters. But anyone concerned about that should have no fears in this case—first, it’s a first-person point of view, and the character arcs are all easy to follow, due not only to the crisp writing but also the perfect narration.
It was a pleasure to encounter a fantasy novel which isn’t set in a pseudo-medieval period, as so many are these days (Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series and a few others being notable exceptions). The leisurely pace, especially in the early chapters, does the narrative a great service. It felt important to experience the life of Isabella as young woman, inexperienced in the ways of the world, but with a educated perception of how it works, before she is flung headlong into her dramatic adventures.
I need to say a word about the dragons, too. Brennan has created whole geneologies and taxonomies of different dragon species, and in the first novel we mainly encounter the rockworm, which uses ice shards as a weapon. Since Isabella is about to take off to other parts of the world in later books, I’m guessing we can expect to encounter others dragons, even scarier. I certainly hope so.
Those of you enjoy the first book, either in audio, print or ebook, will be pleased to know that the second book in the series, The Tropic of Serpents (Tor/Forge) is out now.