I would be lying if I said that I picked this book up for any reason other than the awesome DaVinci-style sketch of a dragon on the front cover. I confess: I love science fiction. I also love historical fiction. Color me infatuated with this particular combination of the two. Brennan took a historical genre like travel writing, a scientific genre like field journals, and the concept of women’s life writing, and put them in a martini shaker and topped it with dragons. Needless to say, I ate this book in nearly one sitting (there had to be breaks; I had to sleep).
Isabella (Lady Trent) our narrator, is a plucky Victorian-esque lady struggling against the restrictions of her time. Her desire for academia is bridled by marriage—a trope that (for me) never gets old in women’s writing. Books that are from, or mimic, the past that articulate limitations in women’s roles never read as “old news” to me—I don’t feel that a woman’s struggle to find the balance between academics and domesticity is passé; it is not a riddle that has been categorically solved. That being said, I did find Brennan’s desire to set Isabella up with Jacob, a man who is not Lord Trent, to be a bit of a cop out—we know that he must either rise up the social ladder (unlikely) or become history (but how?), and the fact that he is rarely given anything resembling a personality makes it easy to lose interest in him. His lasting gift to Isabella, a son, is as boring an addition as his father. Brennan managed to make motherhood look lackluster, detached, and unimportant.
However, Brennan also makes dragon naturalism look like a plausible profession and for that I can stomach a little dry, perfunctory domesticity. Isabella frequently talks about the “dragon inside her” which seems hokey, but sometimes hokey is really true. If you have ever felt like a feral animal in the zoo—getting bored, pacing, or going mad—than Isabella’s journey to finally find herself and free herself from the burden of being acceptable will ring true with you. Brennan presents many different kinds of dragons that evolve out of all different natural elements in a believable manner. I find myself looking for Sparklers (firefly-like dragons that are only an inch long) now when I go outside with the dog. The use of dragons in currently popular science fiction as tools of progressive feminism is really fascinating to me; even the casual Game of Thrones watcher might notice the really feminine tilt the dragons are given. Here, there is something mysterious about dragons that schools of intelligent men can’t decipher—but one self-taught woman can. Isabella holds the key to unlocking knowledge about dragons in the same way that Daenerys Targaryen in A Song of Fire and Ice is piece-by-piece unlocking the secret to being a Queen with her strength (and weaknesses) manifesting in her dragons. I smell a panel at a conference coming from female spirit-animals in modern science fiction as clearly as Lady Trent can smell a Swamp Wrym downwind (read the book and that’ll make more sense).
This first adventure in Isabella’s saga takes us to a land of rock and icy dragons. The use of rock as the first element is very telling; Isabella literally feels stuck between a rock and a hard place for the majority of the novel—and an older version of her constantly reminds us of how concrete she felt she was—but how much growing up she still has to do. At nineteen, the younger Isabella is quite convinced of her own knowledge and her own foolhardily brash approach to things. The teenage character was flawed and unapologetic about herself, but the older version looked back on herself with a knowledge of how her younger self looked and a conscientious guiding of our eyes. This had me making (un?)welcome connections to Minh-ha’s theory of mirrorbox writing: I write myself to see myself seeing others see me (a rough paraphrase). There is a complicated narrative structure here hidden in YA jargon where Isabella is both addressing her audience (us), addressing her perceived audience (the peers of her land), addressing her desired audience (the academics of her land), and addressing both her current and past selves. When you catch the moments that she does all of those things at once you get truly swept away by Brennan’s scope and prowess—but don’t bother looking intentionally for them, because they will hide away like dragons. Her prose sneaks up on you like a Rock Wrym and swallows you whole. Studying it too intently may prove as difficult as studying the dragon bones that rapidly fall into dust in your hands.
I can’t wait to see (and smell, allegedly) the swamp dragons in the second volume.
Marie Brennan is a former academic with a background in archaeology, anthropology, and folklore, which she now puts to rather cockeyed use in writing fantasy. She has several series and published works, including the recently released sequel to A Natural History of Dragons. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, where she spends her time practicing piano, studying karate, and playing a variety of role-playing games. (Bio adapted from Marie’s website, Swan Tower).