Isabella is born the only girl out of six children to a gentleman’s family in the unfortunately dragon-free country of Scirland. It’s unfortunate for Isabella, at least, who develops an obsession with the creatures from a young age, poring over books about them snuck from her father’s library. Aside from the little insect-sized sparklings she collects, and one carefully contrived and dangerous encounter with a wyvern, she seems unlikely ever to be able to study them the way she would like, and she tries to set aside her longing for the proper life of a gentleborn lady, a new marriage, and the prospect of motherhood. But when an opportunity arises, with a little nudging from Isabella, for her husband to join an expedition to study the rock-wyrms of Vystrana, she simply can’t be left behind…
A Natural History of Dragons is written as the first in a series of memoirs from Isabella in her old age, looking back over her life and her contribution to the study of dragons, which we know from the start will grow to be a substantial one. Elderly Isabella has a different tone from her younger self — a sense of self-prepossession, dry wit, and tinges of regret. She obviously has little remaining patience for the society that used to hem her in, and she sets out her memoirs in a style that is conversational and engaging. It requires a little suspension of disbelief, that she can so precisely record conversations held after so many years, and it does assure us that Isabella at least will survive to old age, but I do so enjoy this structure.
The world herein depicted is an obvious pastiche of our Victorian Earth, with Scirland standing in for England, Falchester for London, and so on. I am generally appreciative of the decision to use a secondary world instead of an alternate history when inserting large fantastical elements into one of our historical periods, at least if it’s done well such as by authors like Guy Gavriel Kay, because it frees the author from dealing with historical personages and allows the story to twist and wind in more unexpected directions. I am not so sure it’s done well here, as there’s little actual sense of world-building beyond the slapping on of new names, but I can appreciate that the author is limited in her presentation of this as one character’s memoirs, whereas Kay is usually dealing with multi-POV epics.
I enjoyed the approach to dragons as a scientific subject. Obviously, it still requires us to handwave the fantastical assumption that beasts like that could fly or breathe ice, but aside from that, these creatures are not magical or sapient, they are huge ecological unknowns in a world where devoting oneself to scientific discovery is a worthy lifelong gentlemanly pursuit. In a way, I wanted them to be a bigger part of the story than they actually are. They play a huge role in terms of the motivations of just about everyone we encounter, friendly and villainous, but I found myself rather strangely enraptured by the scientific nitty-gritty of examining them, rather than the human machinations that surround them.
Another thing that A Natural History of Dragons borrows from Victorian times is the paternalism. Happily, the man that Isabella marries, Jacob, is actually a good one, particularly by the standards of his time, but it still induced a bit of tooth-grinding every time Isabella sought her husband’s permission, or was pushed to do so. Still, while I am resistant to the idea that secondary world fantasies which borrow from our history must also borrow some of its worst attitudes, I didn’t mind seeing it here, because the glimpses we get of future Isabella through her writing of the memoirs suggests that being one of the many driving forces behind the gradual changing of those attitudes will be an important aspect of her story.
It’s not without a couple of issues, one of which is uneven pacing. I found the middle of the book quite slow, although I enjoyed the writing style so much it wasn’t particularly bothersome until reaching the comparatively hasty ending. Isabella’s emotional responses to things are front and centre for most of the story, with her doubts, her frustrations, and her love laid bare. But when a particularly emotional event occurs for which her emotional perspective should have dominated, it’s surprisingly underserved. I suppose one can handwave it away as the decision of older Isabella not to linger on that moment in her memoirs, because any writer detailing their own life will choose to emphasise some moments and sweep others under the carpet — but these aren’t really memoirs, and it was an authorial choice that doesn’t really serve the reader.
I also feel that one of the important things about mysteries in fiction is that of the multiple possible explanations, the one that’s true ought to be at least as interesting as the ones that aren’t. I felt a bit underwhelmed by the ultimate truth of the situation in Vystrana and of its rock-wyrms’ behaviour, because it just wasn’t as compelling as the other possibilities.
Overall, this was a really enjoyable light read which flew by for me despite some quibbles. It finished in a place which suggests the second book in the series will be even closer to my interests, and I’m excited to move on with the series.