Marie Brennan, 2013
Look at that cover. Just look at it. I usually don’t go so much for illustrated covers, being more of a design fan myself. Maybe it’s because illustrated fantasy covers tend towards the ‘swords and capes and chainmail bikinis’ aesthetic that was oh so appealing when I was 14 but just seems embarrassing now that I’ve got a job and a mortgage and, more pertinently, have actually been in the same room at the same time as a real-life naked lady.
As I’ve said before, anything aiming for the style of a past era has to walk a fine line between avoiding its less attractive aspects (i.e. the very reasons people don’t write like that any more) while being faithful enough for the conceit to actually work. Veer too close too often to the first and any stylistic anachronisms get really jarring, and get too far from the latter and you may as well not bother. Brennan manages it with aplomb, and while Isabella (to later become the eponymous Lady Trent) is obviously a very modern girl she still manages to not feel totally out of place in the well-evoked social milieu that forms the background to this book.
When you drop a narrator with 21st century sensibilities into the early Victorian period you’re inevitably going to get some conflict, but here that’s about all you get in terms of tension. Part of this is down to the device of the first person narrator, but the plot doesn’t help. It is perhaps the weakest part of the book (though in fairness there are few others): very linear and a bit overly reliant on our narrator stumbling (often literally) over the catalyst for the next chapter.She strays perilously close to Baueresque repetition of plot-enabling idiocy-cum-recklessness.
Still, the plotting isn’t bad so much as minimal, and given that it serves to support a book that does well in pretty much every other aspect that’s eminently forgivable. The main characters and the supporting cast are convincingly realized, the prose trips along very nicely, and even the worldbuilding is diverting (and you know how much it costs me to admit to that). More than anything though, I am slightly in love with this book as a physical object. The cover is, as I hinted, absolutely gorgeous and the same artist contributed a number of illustrated ‘plates’ which are dotted throughout the story. It’s got deckle edges and is even a pleasing size to hold, being slightly smaller than your traditional hardback.
Gorgeous presentation, interesting characters, lovely writing: A Natural History of Dragons is just an all-round pleasurable experience.