Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent, by Marie Brennan

A Natural History of Dragons was nominated for a World Fantasy Award this year.  It's one of those books that's a bit tough to review.  It's well-written--Brennan picks a style (Elizabethan) and sticks with it.  The protagonist is a feminist role model, at least for her setting.  I finished it and stayed somewhat engaged.  What stands out, for me, is what it lacks:

  1. Dragons: The protagonist (the future, but not present, Lady Trent) is obsessed with them, and dragons do figure prominently.  But the cover, title, and early part of the book led me to expect that we would learn much more about them than we do.  We get some anatomy, particularly bone structure and a little social habits, but that's it.  The speculation about sparklings is mildly interesting, I guess it counts.
  2. Obsessive detail: Books of this sort can engage by taking a deep dive into their fantastic subject matter, making for geek fun and material for Cons and cosplay.  But see #1, we have not a lot of depth.  And if you don't have detail, you need:
  3. Compelling action: There is adventure and danger in this book, but it's pretty carefully described and doesn't arouse much in the way of emotion.  Stuff happens.
  4. Grounded culture: Anthiope is a fully make-believe place, though the culture takes an Elizabethan Europe background mostly for granted.  There's some development of what makes Scirland unique, but not much.  It could sort of be anywhere, as long as anywhere is mostly like here.
  5. Fresh and insightful social commentary: Lady Trent is minor royalty in Scirland, and bucks current social trends by being a woman interested in science.  Her father and husband "indulge" her.  OK, but it's been done.  For a long time.
So while it's a competent book, it's not compelling in any way.  I see there's a sequel, and there is definitely room to grow here, but not much to say you should start.  I say two and a half stars--never done that before, but you have to start somewhere.

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