If Charles Darwin were a woman who studied dragons in a fantasy world, this is the book he would have written. If you like science, dragons, and authoritative women, this should be the next book on your to read list.
When I first saw this book on a shelf at my favorite bookstore I thought, “this is a really beautiful book,” which I then immediately followed with “I am not paying $30 for a book I am unsure of.” Months went by and eventually the paperback came out and I decided to purchase. By the time I finished reading it I had already bought the next two in the series AND shamed myself because I hadn’t purchased the beautiful hardcover edition that would have been completely worth the cost.
This book, simply put, was a dream for scientists that love fantasy. I wish I had written it myself. Marie Brennan puts her numerous degrees to good use in this particular series. Here is a story about a woman Isabella (Lady Trent), who battles against societal norms for the opportunity to become a dragon naturalist. Lady Trent is witty, intelligent, and sarcastic and is constantly addressing the reader directly in comments such as “If you wish, gentle reader, you may augment your mental tableau with dramatic orchestral accompaniment.”
Written as a memoir, the creativity of this book begins with Isabella’s point of view and continues with the world that has been built from the ground up. Lady Trent is constantly giving us clues as to what lies in her past and our future through side comments about publications or events that would be well-known to members of her world. These hints kept me reading well into the night and left me happily frustrated that some events weren’t going to occur until much later in the series. The forethought required to right this way is impressive to say the least. Through Lady Trent’s commentary we see the world as it was during these events and as it is to her as she is writing. Marie Brennan is a miracle worker because she gives us the end of the story and makes us still want to read the middle.
The story begins with Isabella as a young girl with the fascination of dragons, as she grows older she has to sneak her way through societies’ expectations and eventually she acquires a husband who allows Isabella to follow her love for science. In this first installment, Isabella is young and makes a young woman’s mistakes, but she is passionate, driven and inspiring. At the ripe age of 18, she set sail to foreign lands with her husband in order to study dragons. Now, many may be thinking that I have given a major spoiler to the book e.g. “She’s married. You gave away the love story!” But that is not the case. While Isabella does love her husband, their story is not the one that matters. For Isabella, a wedding was a necessity that allowed her to study her true love, dragons. I love this book because the love story is a source of character development, but not anywhere near the main focus of the plot. Instead, the plot is about Isabella’s adventures and her growth into a true scientist.
What makes this world and this story truly come alive is Brennan’s experiences with anthropology. Isabella is a Scirling, a culture akin to that of Victorian England with slight steampunk elements. But, there are additional cultures explored and developed by Brennan that make this seem like a complete world. Cleverly, Brennan puts Isabella in the culture that the reader would most easily understand. Not much needs to be said about the Scirlings for us to following along with the implications of their society. This leaves Brennan room to follow her anthropological knowledge through the creation of new cultures for Isabella to traverse.
I give it a 5/5. If I could write a book, this is the book I would like to write.
Main Character: 5/5
Side Characters: 5/5
World Development: 5/5 (I’d give it above a five if I could)
Procrastination and Giggles,
The Red Queen
P.S. “Be warned, then: the collected volumes of this series will contain frozen mountains, foetid swamps, hostile foreigners, hostile fellow countrymen, the occasional hostile family member, bad decisions, misadventures in orienteering, diseases of an unromantic sort, and a plenitude of mud.”