Apparently I never wrote or posted a review of one of the most awesome books I read last year. The funny thing is that I started this review twice but then never finished it. Well, it’s being published today, though I read the book many months ago.
A Natural History of Dragons is the memoir of the fictional Isabella, Lady Trent, the world’s foremost expert on all things dragon. Set in an alternate version of Victorian England, it is truly one of the best books I read last year, despite my lack of review.
This particular books covers Lady Trent’s formative years, as she begins to develop and pursue her interest in dragons and the natural sciences. One of the things that I most loved was that Lady Trent did not set out to be a trailblazer and completely revolutionize the world of dragons and women’s role in the sciences. She just worked towards opportunities and took them when she could. Don’t get me wrong, the world needs revolutionaries and trailblazers, but a lot happens because of people like Lady Trent, who aren’t necessarily striking a blow for (here) feminism as much as they are following their interests and passions without much regard for the rules.
Within this book, Lady Trent is exploring how to live in a society that does not approve of ladies doing unlady-like things, and is trying to balance conforming to gender roles with being herself. I like the way the book is realistic about the types of challenges she must face, from outsiders and from the men who are in charge of her life, and also from within, in terms of how she thinks she must behave and how she wants to be able to function inside society.
The plotline itself was a fun adventure. It had a strong scientific bent that I really enjoyed – not science jargon, just an inclusion of what scientific work is often like. (Detail-orientated, demanding, repetitive, and often boring.) Lady Trent, who has always had an unusually strong interest in the natural sciences, finds herself and her husband presented with an opportunity of a lifetime, to travel to a remote village in a foreign country and study dragons. Though it’s not at all proper for a Victorian lady to traipse off after adventure, she strikes upon a plan that will let her maintain some of her reputation and most of her adventure, and sets off with her husband for a life-changing adventure.
Lady Trent herself is a practical person, not given to flights of emotion or idealization about the world. She’s of a very scientific bent, detailed and prone to thinking things through and accepting the realities of the world as she sees them. She has no illusion as to what studying dragons will do to her reputation or standing in society, nor does she think she can survive outside of society as an outcast. But she is prepared for adventure and clearheaded; this is no Jane running off to study gorillas, but a Madame Curie, determined and steadfast.
I don’t have the book anymore, having given it away in preparation for the Great Move this month, but it really is one of my absolute favorites and I can’t wait for the sequel, which comes out in March. I know I ranted on about Lady Trent in this review, but I do assure you, the plot was well-done: adventurous, a little suspenseful, and including a fairly broad range of characters that I really enjoyed; the writing was excellent, and overall the book really worked.
If you like strong female characters, dragons, science, adventure, or are just looking for a good fantasy book, you should give this one a try! If you like characters who are emotional or dramatic, or if you are not a fan of a slightly drier style of writing, then perhaps this is not the book for you.