Review: A Natural History of Dragons

A Natural History of Dragons
A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

At one point in time, I was super excited for this book, and I would like to take the moment to thank Tor Books for giving me the opportunity to read it. I love dragons; my first finished novel was about shape-shifting dragons. I’m not just interested in dragons as a work of fantasy, however; I’m also very interested in how dragons could possibly work in the real world, the anatomy of dragons, and, of course, the various sub-species of dragons and how they would interact with each other and the rest of the world. Given the title, the cover, and the description, I was expecting a fictional account of, well, a natural history of dragons. To be fair, there is a lot of scientific information about dragons in the book, specifically in the first half, but it did not comprise the entirety of the work.

Isabella Trent is a fairly likable protagonist. While the story of a woman trying to engage her own interests in a man’s world may have been done numerous times before, it’s still relevant. Reading about Isabella striving so hard to maintain her interests when society told her she was wrong ended up being the strongest part of the book. That and the absolutely gorgeous artwork by Todd Lockwood. Seriously, had it been a book simply of his artwork and the inspiration behind them it would have gotten five stars.

The first half of the novel was amazing. Isabella talked about her childhood, how she fell in love with dragons, how her intellectual mind shaped her entire life, and it actually felt like we were going to get a fictional scientific account about dragons, via the sparklings. Then she goes to Vystrana to study dragons, and the reader thinks we’re finally going to get some really good dragon action.

If you came into this book looking for dragons as I did, I fear you are going to fall victim to the old bait and switch tactic. Once we get to Vystrana, even though there is a study of dragons going on which is the whole purpose of them being there, the dragons eventually take second seat to the political plot about smugglers, colonization, exploitation and poaching. I wanted to read a scientific account about dragons, which I was promised from all the advertised material, and instead I got A Tale of Two Smugglers. On top of that, it was written with a Victorian mindset, so Isabella comes off as being not quite so progressive as you think she would be when she wants nothing more than to be accepted in a scholarly field at a time when that was socially unacceptable. The entire mystery plot at the end feels gratuitous, like we needed something besides the study of dragons to keep us interested. I would have been more invested in the outcome had we just stuck with the dragons in the first place, but by the end of the novel, the poor dragons feel like a tacked on plot device.

As always, I was severely disappointed to be correct in my assumptions about the fate of a particular character. Without giving away too many details, it seems like he was brought in just to serve one particular function, and once done, he was disposed of for no other purpose than to cause anguish for the heroine. Since his original purpose was no longer needed, we needed to give him something else to do. So he died. I fully support killing your characters off when a solid reason is involved, not just because you ran out of things to do with the character other than cause another character angst.

Publisher’s Weekly seems to be under the impression that this is a stand alone novel. I sincerely hope this is not the case, because textually it seems that Isabella saved all her exciting adventures for a different text. As for the intended age of the audience, I notice this book is filed under “adult” but it felt much more like “young adult” to me in terms of content and tone. On that note, however, I feel like the book itself is too dry to actually maintain the interest of someone younger, which is probably why the tacky mystery plot was thrown on in the first place.

There’s a lot of good things about this book, but unfortunately there were also large parts of it that made me want to throw my hands up in the air in frustration. If you’re looking for a book about, well, dragons, I recommend you give this one a pass.

View all my reviews

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