Monday 10 February 2014

A Natural History of Dragons

Marie Brennan, 2013
(February 2014)

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.

Wow. That digressed quickly. Let’s ignore the unfortunate psychological excavation and get back to the book, shall we? We really should, as this is one of those books you simply want to file under ‘jolly good fun’. As the subtitle suggests, A Natural History… is written as a pastiche of mid-nineteenth century ‘scientific’ memoirs, set in a secondary world which is much the same as Earth of the same period but with dragons. It’s very well done.

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.


  1. This was one of my favorite covers last year. I actually came across a first edition hard cover in Barnes and Noble yesterday (hadn't seen this on the shelves in some time) and snagged it.

    And I'm 45, happily married and recently saw my daughter get hitched and I still like the sword and sorcery cover aesthetic. Its all about the art for me. If the art is well done, I'm fine with it. :)

    1. Good work on the dead-tree copy. Stuff like this is why I'll never entirely convert to digital. The sequel's out soon (which we may have discussed elsewhere), and for the first time in a while I'm legitimately excited about that.

      The illustration thing is just a personal preference, and as you rightly say stuff that's well done is a joy regardless of aesthetic (which is why I always enjoy your cover art posts). Obviously I exaggerate slightly for effect above, though the ongoing SFWA embarrassment would suggest that I'm not totally wide of the mark...

    2. Yes, the SFWA stuff is a mess, isn't it?

      I certainly don't fault anyone for not liking various styles/subject matter from any realm of SF/F. My problem with the assault on certain types of covers, led in part by Jim C. Hines, and with the kerfluffle over a particular cover on the SFWA bulletin (which wasn't particularly great art) is that in trying to champion art that is not objectifying women (an opinion I agree with) is that, by least in my feels as if "they" are saying that there is no more room for the work of talented artists like Frank Frazetta or, using examples of people still alive, Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell, or even older work by talented people like Alex Schomburg, all of whom have painted their versions of the damsel in distress, and/or improbably sexy woman obviously not appropriately dressed for the situation in which she finds herself.

      I'm torn about how I feel about the subject matter, in part because I've got the wrong genitals/chromosomes to have a meaningful opinion about it, at least to some degree.

      I just know that I am a big fan of Frank Frazetta, for example, and hope that if that kind of art isn't welcome for contemporary SF/F, which again I'm perfectly happy to agree may not have a place today, that we can still appreciate and acknowledge the work that came before.

      Does that make any sense? I feel like I'm babbling.

    3. If you're babbling then you're certainly not alone ;) It's one of those 'discussions' that has a tendency to pull in lots of other (non-)related issues, I think, so that's certainly no failing.

      As a case in point, before things ballooned quite so spectacularly over the last few days, I think that the original complaint wasn't so much that there was NO place for this art, just that the cover of something purporting to be a professional trade journal wasn't it. Horses for courses and all. As you imply at the end, it's about the appropriateness (or not) of the venue, as opposed to the art itself.

      That said you're clearly far more involved with the SF community than I am, so I'm drawing on perhaps a less comprehensive knowledge of all this than you. I don't have much skin in this game, which is an unfortunate turn of phrase in the circumstances, but also something I've been increasingly thankful for recently...

  2. This was one of my top reads for 2013. And yes, the very first thing that grabbed my attention was the cover art. I read the blurb, and thought "hey, this sounds interesting". And then loved the novel from the first page to the last.

    the next one in the series is coming out soon!

    1. I literally just ordered the sequel today! I'm kind of committed to the books as objects now; even if the writing goes to shit if the hold to the same artist and production values I can't see myself not completing the set.