The first in Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent series, A Natural History of Dragons sets up the conceit that will power the next five books. Isabella Trent is a gentlewoman in a secondary-world analogue of Regency England. Having become a famous naturalist for her study of dragons, she’s now writing her memoirs, with this first book seeing her overcome social prejudice to accompany her husband abroad on her first dangerous expedition to find out more about these evasive beasts.
Its project is similar to that of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, with which its subject matter and setting invite inevitable comparisons: it’s using fantasy – dragons – to push against mainstream forms of discourse (autobiography, natural history) that are traditionally reserved for straight white men, creating space in those discourses to tell the stories of the marginalised and of those who are invisible to the mainstream. In short, it makes the invisible (dragons; women who did early science) visible. So this is a story about a woman who does science, who’s better at writing about anatomy than emotion, who has romance but isn’t defined by it. It’s also a story that critiques the more exoticising forms of travel writing we find in history, and even today: the village where she and her husband go to find dragons to study is not quaint and rustic, its inhabitants not disarmingly friendly in a homely way. Drustanev is cold, the food is over-garlicked, the inhabitants are resentful of the party’s intrusion. This is pointed up specifically in the text, when Isabella mentions writing an early travel memoir where, as was the fashion for young ladies travelling at the time, she does exoticise the place and its people.
There are plenty of other such ripples, where the conventional ideal text (male-authored autobiography) fights with the female scientist it was never designed to contain. Isabella makes a lot of the fact that she is willing to discuss sex, in biological terms, while her readers may be scandalised at a woman so doing – despite the fact that she does it in her books on dragon anatomy.
A more interesting example is her experience of marriage. As I’ve already indicated, Isabella isn’t really a romantic figure: we see little of her marriage and home life until it becomes entangled with her career as a scientist, because she’s not terribly interested in sharing it. Although her marriage eventually turns out to have a lot of love in it (not a euphemism, although…), it is at least initially very much a social contract, assuring financial security for Isabella, while for her husband it represents a chance to have a wife with some intelligence. It’s an interesting alternative relationship paradigm for a Regency story, writing against a tradition of Regency romance – see not Austen’s actual novels, which are invariably more complex than we give them credit for, but our cultural reception of them, which casts them as romantic, airy-fairy chick lit. In particular, Brennan writes about the strangeness of the sudden intimacy between Isabella and her husband, the move from absolute social propriety to sharing their lives and their bed. It’s a nice defamiliarisation of the “romantic” trope of saving yourself for marriage.
Unfortunately, though, Brennan’s just not as good at this textual subversion as Novik is. Her Regency voice, unlike Novik’s, is an odd mix of contemporary directness and Regency formality, and comes across as stilted and artificial – rather undermining the work of writing against a patriarchal discourse when the discourse isn’t quite right. (Incidentally, this reminds me of Brennan’s Midnight Never Come, which also didn’t carry through its historical setting quite right.)
Additionally, the fact that her story is set in a secondary-world analogue containing a place that’s clearly meant to recall Regency England while not actually being it is tricky. While it does avoid some of the issues of appropriation that could spring from Isabella’s expeditions round the world (which I assume continue in the rest of the series), it also sort of defangs Brennan’s critique of Regency discourse and attitude. What the book’s trying to do and how it tries to do it don’t quite map together.
I’ve been comparing A Natural History of Dragons implicitly with Novik’s series all the time I’ve been reading it and thinking about it, which perhaps isn’t quite fair, and it might be that if I hadn’t read about Temeraire before I read about Isabella I might have enjoyed this more. I would probably read more of Brennan’s series if the books came my way – but, for me, Novik’s series does the same thing better.