Yes, we shot a dragon.
Reader, if you've ever read Jane Eyre you'll have some idea of the famous line Marie Brennan is riffing on in the above quoted passage (said passage occurring on page 145, midway through her accomplished new novel A Natural History of Dragons). "Reader, I married him"—the words which encapsulate everything Jane has fought for in Charlotte Brontë's novel—are exactly what A Natural History inverts, taking the motif of self-realization though good marriage found in so much of Victorian-era literature, and transforming it, quite delightfully, into self-actualization through dragons. In Brennan's world dragons (and the quest to understand them) are the longed-for love object and, thus, I can think of no line more representative of the novel's wit, nor its lack of sentiment, than the above. The purported memoir of famed dragon-expert Lady Trent, a woman born to the repressive, quasi-Victorian sensibilities of the imaginary land of Scirland, A Natural History of Dragons owes less to Jane Eyre-style Romanticism and more Brontë-style politics—and it arrives in time to remind those of us wearied by the din of the "Mommy Wars" that feminism is more than a buzzword to kindle online conflagration.
Ah yes. Feminism. It's a shame that the word has proved distasteful—worse: commercially unappealing!—in some circles; nevertheless, I shall use it. A Natural History is informed by the struggles of first-wave feminists, its Victorian-era setting recalling the circumstances that led to the rise of suffrage. Our Lady Trent (at this point only Mrs. Isabella Camherst; we'll learn how she got her title in forthcoming volumes) chafes at the societal impositions that prevent women from studying the natural sciences, and rebels at the notion that a girl must be romantic when her only true love is of the leathery winged variety. Raised to the privileged class of Scirland, Isabella is expected to marry well and keep quiet, but as her collection of dragon specimens mounts and her interest in Draconian origins grows she realizes that she will never be content in her prescribed role. Beginning in girlhood, she embarks on a series of increasingly dangerous and (for her world) gender-identity-defying exploits that culminates in a research mission to the mountainous land of Drustanev to search, as it were, for the origin of species.
Unsurprisingly, the dragons of the novel's title take a page from Darwin—illustrating the many variations that arise from a common ancestor. The specimens here range from tiny, insect-like "Sparklings," to toxic fume expelling swamp-wyrms, to fire and ice breathers and even a flightless variety with merely vestigial wings. If none have quite the personality of preceding literary wyrms like Tolkien's Smaug or Martin's various Targaryen steeds, it's because Brennan treats them firmly as a scientific, rather than supernatural, phenomenon, complete with passages detailing their dissection, their place in cultural anthropology, and, as mentioned, their death in the name of scientific research. Isabella's narration may derive from the Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell school of historical fantasy, full of self-deprecation and dry, Austenish wit ("If you do not understand what my husband has called my deranged practicality, very little of my life will make the slightest bit of sense," Isabella warns us early on [p. 27]), but both she and Brennan are deadly serious in their respective pursuits. Indeed, it's the novel's analytical tone, its de-emphasis of Romanticism (while tackling a decidedly Romantic subject) that makes it unique.
You know that indignant-with-outrage, hell-hath-no-fury, torrid Catherine Linton type of heroine? (In all seriousness, Reader, I hope you do. The world is a poorer place without her.) Brennan has something more pragmatic in mind. Depending on how hot you like your heroines (I refer here to temperament, not physical beauty), you'll be pleased or puzzled with the ever-practical Isabella, who admits "I am a scientist, and not a Poet" and, while never coming off as cold, is most defiant of stereotypes when un-defiant. Hers is not a fiery rebellion—her original idea regarding the Drustanev expedition is to encourage her husband, Jacob, to go—but a calculated revolt that heeds the strictures of her time. When her place in the expedition is finally assured, Jacob's gentle insistence that they both remain outwardly "well behaved" until departure comes off not as condescending, but as wise—and Isabella heeds him in the name of societal self-preservation. While determined to live life on her own terms, she remains a product of Victorian/Scirlandian conditioning—self-consciously aware of the bounds of propriety even as she transgresses against them. As a result of this characterization, some of her keenest observations are reserved not for dragons, but for members of her own species.
"Mr. Wilker was not a gentleman by birth," Isabella muses in the middle of a fight with a colleague.
And in those days I did not understand what effort had been required for him to lift himself above his humble birth, obtain an education, and bring himself into the circle of a man as socially and scientifically exalted as [our expedition's leader] Lord Hilford. I therefore did not understand why he should resent me, and my presence on this expedition. But the blame must be shared equally; neither of us behaved very well towards each other, as I was in the process of proving. (p. 247)
While I love force-of-nature heroines as much as the next Romantic (ask me about Lord Byron, sometime, Reader. Ask.), Isabella's rationality, her calm ability to parse the human and societal motivations in any given situation, is a breath of (decidedly un-tempestuous) fresh air. Without becoming leaden with political correctness, Brennan is able to meditate on a number of cultural prejudices—both in her given era and, one senses, our own.
Take, for example, this exchange, between Isabella and her Drustanev maid, Dagmira. Isabella has asked how she might make amends to Dagmira's village as the presence of the dragon-expedition has created some rather sensational disruptions involving not only dragons but ancient demons and smugglers.
Finally Dagmira said bluntly, "Get rid of the dragons."
"Get rid of them!" I shot to my feet, appalled.
She flung one impatient hand at the sky. "They eat our sheep, attack our shepherds—what good do they do us?"
All my childhood obsession with dragons welled up in my throat, choking me. "But they're-they're"—I was not capable of having this conversation in [Dagmira's native language], where my vocabulary lacked the word for "magnificent." Perhaps it was for the best; the struggle to convey my meaning gave my brain time to catch up. Beauty and splendor are all very well, but they put no food on the table for a mountain peasant, nor do they keep the house warm in winter.
But I could hardly commit myself to their eradication either. (p. 214)
The tension between species preservationists and native human populations is, of course, nothing new, but Isaballa's quandary may strike more of a nerve nowadays as the Internet allows us to keep track of which creatures are going, or have gone, extinct (yesterday it was Africa's Western Black Rhino). This passage might speak to any number of real-world parallels. It also illustrates perhaps the most interesting aspect of the novel: the way in which Isabella remains unashamedly a creature of her class. Her wealth and privilege make her an outsider in Drustanev and limit her ability to truly understand the native culture, but, while acknowledging this, she has no time for anguished hand-wringing—only clear-eyed observation and a tolerable level of compromise. With such different agendas and experiences between them, the most Isabella and Dagmira can be are wary allies—a refreshing, not to mention historically accurate, perspective for a story set at the height of Imperialism. Brennan's narrative is brave enough to admit to its heroine's prejudices and, by so doing, invites us to follow her evolution over the course of the proposed next chapters in her saga.
It's a saga, Reader, that I'll happily follow, containing enough madcap adventure (Draconian ruins! Secret smuggling cabals! Mysterious dragon burial grounds!) to satisfy the armchair explorer and enough research to ground its engaging alternate history. The clever conceit of dragons as a field of study is underpinned by thorough research into Victorian methodology—descriptions of preservation jars, on-the-fly dissection, field journals, scientific publications, and Latin classifications all ring true—and are given a further shade of authenticity by the sporadic inclusion of Isabella's field sketches (in reality, the work of artist Todd Lockwood) which depict various specimens and locales. Brennan's website mentions research into Victorian travel writing, and if you've ever engaged with such, Reader, you will appreciate her facility with the form, which she knows well enough to wax meta-fictional:
I've written before about Drustanev, in A Journey to the Mountains of Vystranna. If you happen to own a copy though, or are intending to buy one (as I've encouraged before), I beg you not to pay any attention to what I said there concerning the village or indeed the Vystrani people as a whole.
The words I wrote then embarrass me heartily now. . . . It is a worse piece of drivel than Mr. Condale's Wanderings in Central Anthiope, inspired more by the theatrical convention of colorful, semiprophetic Vystrani characters than by the people I knew in Drustanev. (p. 110)
And here, at last, Reader, we must come to a few flaws. Not that Brennan ever treats her characters in the dismissive way of ethnic clichés, but that, perhaps she might have used a little "colorfulness" overall. Drustanev peasant and Scirlandian noble alike, two weeks after finishing the novel I find I can recall few of the supporting characters with any detail. As there are so many of them—childhood friends, society darlings, suspicious village priests, mountain guides—this puts a faint damper on the proceedings. I've forgotten, for example, the names of Brennan's villains. There were two: their deeds heinous, their personalities vague. A subplot involving a missing proprietor named Grietelkin is likewise, important, but has little impact on the reader's emotions. Other than Isabella, Dagmira and Jacob are the only characters to really come into focus and, while they are more than well drawn enough to earn a few tears when tragedy strikes, the rest of the (quite numerous) cast might have benefitted from a few more descriptive details or exaggerated personality traits. Too many of them remain polite and correct—Jane Bennets when we could have used a few Lady Catherines or Mr. Collinses.
On the whole, however, these are minor flaws pitted against what Brennan has accomplished. Her heroine is an engaging one, whose sure and distinctive voice is more than powerful enough to guide us on her adventures. Her dragons are a suitable combination of the majestic and frightening, inspiring the same sort of respect in the reader that Isabella feels as she begins to map their habits. This is, in the end, a kind of Romance—between a young woman and the entirety of dragon-kind. As the plot thickens in forthcoming volumes I'll be eager to see how it all evolves.
Hannah Strom-Martin's fiction has appeared in Realms of Fantasy Magazine, OnSpec, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies (forthcoming), and the anthology Amazons: Sexy Tales of Strong Women. Her nonfiction has been published in Strange Horizons, The North Bay Bohemian, and The Sacramento News and Review, among others. With Erin Underwood, she is the co-editor of The Pop Fic Review and the recent anthology Futuredaze: A Collection of YA Science Fiction. She lives in California with her husband and the obligatory herd of cats named after fantasy characters.
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