Victorian era-set novels might not be to everyone’s taste, but in this particular one dragons are commonplace even in the English countryside. Everybody loves dragons.One has to be a monster not to love dragons.
Protagonist and adventurer extraordinaire Isabella has been obsessed with dragons since childhood, much to the despair of her very proper upper class mother. Said frustrated mother then manages marry her off to a gentleman who has a fortune and loves dragons as much as her daughter: jackpot! He also couldn’t care less of his time’s conventions, so it doesn’t take long to convince him to go on an expedition to mysterious Vystrana, obviously with the intent to find dragons. As you can imagine, things there don’t go for the best.
The crossover between the Georgian/Victorian etiquette and the supernatural elements is a gem. Isabella’s social and cultural values belong to 1800s England, as do explorations, expeditions and scientific advancement. Dragons are introduced in such a subtle way that, despite still being incredible mysterious creatures, it seems impossible that they didn’t actually exist 200 years ago.
The Victorian morale is refrained to an almost obnoxious level for someone who has more than a superficial knowledge of the era, to the point where I found myself thinking. I get it, Isabella, you are a independent woman in a time of oppression, now let’s please move forward. The book is clearly set in a world geographically identical to ours; most places have one or many features that should be telling of what the corresponding Country in our world is. An example: Isabella’s native land, Scirland, is quite clearly England. Unfortunately, this is also the only example I can make because I just did not get most of the references. I’m pretty sure Vystrana is somewhere around the Caucasus, but that’s as far as I got. Any other connection was lost on me, which made it dreadful to determine what anyone was talking about.
Sadly, Isabella is not much more than a silly young girl, despite “misbehaving” and not adhering to the’ social norms of her time (and clearly wanting to be considered a badass because of that). The other protagonists are barely outlines of a character in a me-me-me-me narration, so it’s the story’s job to make the book come alive and become rather enjoyable even considering its flaws. The narration unfolds as more of a historical novel than a fantasy one, dragons being an excuse rather than a central feature. A Natural History Of Dragons is good fun and it goes by quite quickly – not exclusively a positive, since as a whole the books ends up feeling a bit too light. There are a lot of good prompts, but most of them don’t get more than a couple of paragraphs.
Now onto my sheer stupidity turned agonizing reader pain. The main reason I got so frustrated with A Natural History Of Dragons is probably my fault, really. It didn’t hit me until I was twenty pages away from the end (and still not very far into Isabella’s life) that this is going to be a series. I think some ideas can only go so far and if the series doesn’t pick up the pace talking about more than one adventure per book, nor I nor the author will ever see the end of this. The only positive is that there will be time to polish some bits of the structure and really make Marie Brennan’s brilliant concept (not new, but still awesome) really come through.