“I wanted both to see dragons, and to understand them. I wanted to stretch the wings of my mind and see how far I could fly.”
The premise of this novel is quite straight-forward, and it was exactly that simplicity which drew me to it in the first place. Told as the first in a series of personal memoirs, this book follows Lady Trent, the world’s leading authority on the on dragons, as she reflects on the adventures of her youth whilst studying these magnificent creatures and the adversities she faced in the pursuit of her passion. I truly didn’t know much more beyond that going into this novel, but I had high expectations for it to be a unique approach to handling and examining dragons in the fantasy genre, going in-depth into their science, behavior and physiology (as one would with any other animal), rather than viewing them as these epic magical monsters which need be defeated to advance one’s quest. Taking that premise and placing it in a setting based heavily around the Victorian period was also very interesting, and I thought it had so much potential to examine several elements of that time and society from a new fantastical context. Unfortunately, while this was achieved to some extent, in my opinion Marie Brennan could have gone much deeper, but I do also understand that this book is the first in a series so it’s quite likely that the sequels dive further into these topics.
The success of a this type of story with a first person POV hinges significantly on the strength of it’s protagonist, and Lady Trent fulfilled that function in many ways. She was inquisitive, ambitious and courageous, but she was also cunning and manipulative when the situation called for it. This was never to a malicious extent, but these behaviors also lead herself and those around her in to more than one perilous situation which might have otherwise been avoidable. While this was at-times frustrating to observe as a reader, it was often saved by the very memoir style in which in was written. The much older voice of Lady Trent which narrates this novel possessed a wisdom, wit and understanding that allowed her to acknowledge and reflect on the more brash attitudes of her youth, and this made the less agreeable aspects her personality easier to swallow. Her husband Jacob was a generally pleasant man, but didn’t have an especially interesting personality, and the same can be said of all this novel’s side characters.
I do have to commend Brennan on the strength of her writing style though. Speaking as someone who had to read a decent amount of Victorian literature over the course of their degree, I thought she perfectly nailed the dry, descriptive and somewhat pompous heir of the writing from said period. All of the word choices feel very calculated and purposeful, and I think it speak volumes to the fact that the style of her writing alone was able to establish most of the basis for this novel’s inspired setting, as it is never explicitly stated or made allegorically blatant by the plot itself. Unfortunately, that means that my personal grievances with Victorian literature extent into this text as well, and subsequently, into Lady Trent’s character. As stated previously, the style of this novel is very dry and deliberate, and this only felt enhanced by the fact that it was told as a scientifically based memoir. It gave everything that Lady Trent described and experienced a somewhat cold attitude and emotional distance, and while this was fitting for its aforementioned professional format, it made it hard to connect/empathize empathize with her as a character.
Also, as silly as it sounds, I really do wish there were more dragons in this book whose title suggests that it is all about dragons. Or perhaps I should say that I wish that it focused more on the dragons, as I stated earlier that I was initially very intrigued by the premise of this novel and its scientific study of the species. Every encounter that Lady Trent, and thus the reader, had with these creatures felt too brief, and in my opinion the story might have benefited from perhaps focusing on just one dragon or species of dragon and devoted itself entirely to their study. Instead, this novel focuses much more on the societal obstacles she faces as a women trying to break into a scientific field dominated by men, and her frustration in navigating these roadblocks and constraints as best as she can in a period when women had very few opportunities in general. This was by no means a bad thing, as I found it to be a gripping aspect of Lady Trent’s character and it was articulated very well by Brennan;s writing. I simply wish that she had been able to balance this more with the fantastical elements of the dragon-inhabited world that she created.
I don’t know if I will be continuing this series, as while I found the premise, writing and execution entertaining to an extent, it just didn’t grip me enough to keep me invested for several more installments. However, if you are a fan of fantasy books that give twists to specific preexisting historical periods, and/or Victorian writing styles reminiscent of Jane Austen or the Brontës, then check this book out! 3/5