Review: A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

Book cover of A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

It really profoundly irritates me that I’ve had the opportunity to read this since 2014, when A Natural History of Dragons was first published. Did I read it? No. Did I even consider buying it? No. And this, people, is why I shouldn’t be trusted with my Book Blogger Practising Certificate.

Plot summary: 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.

I loved this book from the very first page. I was completely hooked by the premise which, for some reason, I’d never bothered to take in for three whole years, even though this is absolutely my sort of book.

Lady Trent writes her memoirs from several decades in the future, when she’s clearly an accomplished scholarly adventurer of some renown. In her twilight years, she has taken some leisure time to finally write an honest account in response to the hundreds of letters she receives from young fans, clamouring for details on her exploits. This results in a charming first person narrative that has the benefit of hindsight – the elderly Lady Trent looks back on her younger self with some fondness (and occasionally frustration) and muses on how the world has changed.

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. Nowadays, of course,
the field is quite respectable, with university courses and intellectual
societies putting out fat volumes titled Proceedings of some
meeting or other. Those interested in respectable things, however,
attend my lectures. The ones who write to me invariably want to hear
about my adventures: my escape from captivity in the swamps of Mouleen,
or my role in the great Battle of Keonga, or (most frequently) my flight
to the inhospitable heights of the Mrtyahaima peaks, the only place on
earth where the secrets of dragonkind could be unlocked.  

This does not interrupt the action-filled plot in the slightest, however. In A Natural History of Dragons, Isabella (as she then was) tags along to the perilous mountain region of Vystrana, at the affectionate sufferance of her somewhat bemused husband. She’s slightly out of her depth, but determined to prove that she can be a useful addition to the party due to her lifelong love of dragons.

Isabella’s favourite topic is, of course, the natural history of dragons and the narrative spends some time discussing her theories on their anatomy and whether they have since been proved correct. However, as she’s writing from a more advanced age, she recognises that are other books (including her own) that detail these issues and so she has chosen to focus on the more personal and exciting aspects of her adventures.

Sparkling illustration - Lady Isabella Trent - Natural History of Dragons - Marie BrennanAnd hey, it’s dragons! I’m more than willing to sit through discussions regarding the provenance of a dragon’s fiery breath. It helps that the novel is interspersed with beautiful illustrations sketched by ‘Isabella’ herself.

The overarching plot relates to the sudden aggression shown by the dragons in the Vystrana region and the potentially related disappearance of their pre-arranged guide. It’s a really good story, with some really clever ideas and plot devices that I just didn’t see coming.

In short, I have absolutely nothing negative to say about A Natural History of Dragons and I genuinely wish that I’d read this three years ago. I’ve actually already bought the next two books in the series and I’m eyeing up The Tropic of Serpents already. Definitely read this – it’s charming, well-written and a great story.

Visit Marie Brennan’s website, or find her on Twitter.


  1. Ellie Warren says:

    I am just as bad although i did read the first books years ago I haven't read the others, and I have some of them. I have no excuse.

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