Book #91: A Natural History of Dragons (2013)

ba2i-square-1536Author: Marie Brennan
Language: English
Length: 592 minutes (9 hours 52 minutes)
Finished listening on: 9 October 2015

Audible had a promotion on audiobooks back in September or October – they offered two books for the price of one, and there was a book on my wishlist on the list of eligible books. This book was the freebie, essentially – it had been between this, and a Dawn French book with mixed reviews.

This book is a fantasy memoir told by the fictional famous naturalist Lady Trent, who specializes in dragons. Much of the book, therefore, concerns dragons, but this might be misleading: the main focus is probably the political situation of her world, which is a cypher of Victorian Europe with exotic names like Scyrland and Vystrana (those names are probably spelled wrong: such is the peril of only “reading” audiobooks).

Confusingly, the title of the book refers to a book in the setting about dragons, which sets off the narrator’s interest in childhood, but that because she’s a girl, she’s not really allowed to access (being precocious, she sneaks it out of her father’s study). I must admit it took me a while to realize this, as I was expecting a longer story, or more details about the dragons. The physiology of dragons is well-explored in parts, though, and the author tries hard to reconcile the idea of such a large animal being able to fly by describing a wholly new kind of skeleton.

The narration is quite funny in places, and the audiobook’s reader suits the role well. It’s told from the perspective of the older Lady Trent recounting a story of her youth. It’s implied early on that the world stretches out beyond the bounds of the story, especially when the narrator mentions her other (also fictional) books and tells the reader they should read those to get a fuller picture. I always appreciate touches like that in books.

The political situation, as I mentioned, is very well imagined – colonialism is definitely a force in this world, and it mirrors the real situation on Earth. Ultimately, we only get tantalizing glances of this, but the book does go into detail about the gender politics of the world, pretty much a given when your main character is a woman in a historical(-ish) setting – in fact, in doing so it matched the last book I read (The Privilege of the Sword) well, as many of the themes there were also about that.

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out where Vystrana, the main setting of the book, is supposed to represent (since Scyrland is a very clear cypher of England). At first I thought it might be India, just based on the sound of the word, and the mountainous setting that is originally reminiscent of the Himalayas, but later I decided it must be either Russia or somewhere like Transylvania, based on the Slavic-sounding names. I think it would have been better if the author had spent a little more time making the country its own thing, rather than just being based on a real place – but this isn’t a huge complaint, as there is a good amount of world-building overall.

Despite these small flaws, I enjoyed the book a lot, and as I mentioned, it’s tantalizing! I now quite want to read the next book in the series. We’ll see, anyway.

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