A worm in the bud

Conrad Gesner and Edward Topsell: Historie of Foure-Footed Beastes and Serpents (1658)

Marie Brennan: A Natural History of Dragons:
a memoir by Lady Trent
Titan Books 2014 (2013)

I’ve had my eye on this for some time and for a number of reasons, but despite the delay in my reading there’s no denying the praise and esteem it has garnered from the start. The ‘Lady Trent’ of the title must be a close fit or at least parallel of author Bryn Neuenschwander (who writes under the Marie Brennan nom de plume): her background in anthropology, archaeology and folklore overlaps that of the fictional writer of this memoir. Certainly that same passion and expertise comes through strongly in the text of this fantasy, not failing to enthuse the sympathetic reader. And dragons: what heart can’t beat a little bit faster on reading this word?

Isabella Hendemore lives in Scirland, an island in a fantasy world which is strongly reminiscent of Victorian Britain in its nomenclature, customs and culture; elsewhere in this world are equivalents of other lands and cultures, such as Tsarist Russia. A key difference is of course the existence of dragons, the study of which is strangely neglected in this world. This lack is a challenge to the young woman, whose ambition is to remedy it with expeditions to unexplored areas where such creatures exist. In this she is like a composite of male scientists such as Charles Darwin or Alfred Russel Wallace and women explorers like Mary Kingsley, all active in our own thrusting, confident, imperialist 19th century. In one respect, then, A Natural History of Dragons is the equivalent of the travelogue of a Victorian female who daringly goes against the era’s restrictive conventions concerning young ladies — to stay at home, be a helpmeet, indulge in artistic and musical dilettantism.

Lest you think this might be a starchy parody or pastiche, it isn’t. It’s a thumping good read; yes, one flavoured by such accounts but nevertheless drawing you on with seat-of-the-pants action and good characterisation. For modern sensibilities there are hints of steampunk in amongst the cliffhangers, mysteries amidst the pretend biology, death visited on some of the variant stereotypes, and green issues to counter both international politics and greed-inspired industrialisation. 

Isabella, her young husband and expedition leader Lord Hilford travel from their home in Scirland to the mountains of Vystrana to study rock-wyrms. In the isolated village of Drustanev they set up the expedition base. Here, as well as natural distrust from the villagers, they discover the process of investigating the dragons is not as straightforward as might be hoped, mainly owing to — as it were — a worm in the bud: the machinations of corrupt officials. And, Isabella being Isabella, seems to initiate or be the catalyst for much of the action — as well as, in many ways, the solution.

This is a fantastic novel, the first of a sequence of books and so bringing with it the promise of more enjoyment to come. First person narrator Isabella Camherst (née Hendemore, later to be Lady Trent) is an intrepid individual whom it’s nigh impossible to dislike; the narrative itself slips almost seamlessly from matter-of-fact to daring escapade and back again; and given that this world is not our own it still contains believable terrains, credible societies and the sense of a back history even if this last is rarely stated.

For fantasy lovers there is the added attraction of maps — lacking scale, it’s true, but with enough detail to orientate oneself — and notebook sketches of dragons such as a Sparkling, Wolf-drake, Akhian Desert Drake and Vystrani Rock-wyrm. (Rhys Davies and Todd Lockwood, respectively, are responsible for these.) For linguophiles like me many of the terms, place-names and dialect words are a delight. (Just one example: the village of Drustanev is a closet allusion to part of the legend of Tristan and Isolde — Drustan, a Dark Age version of the name Tristan, fought a fearsome battle with an Irish dragon, cutting out its tongue as proof of success before being overcome by exhaustion.) 

And for lovers of authors such as Austen and the Brontës this is a commentary on both the typical Austen comedy of manners and the archetypal Brontë heroine breaking out from society’s mould. This fantasy is, however, more than just the sum of its parts; it’s a real tribute to the skill of its talented author in creating a strange yet familiar world.

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11 thoughts on “A worm in the bud

  1. Sounds a delight, Chris. I admit the intrepid 19th century lady explorers of our own world have always fascinated me – how they broke through boundaries, causing scandal and consternation to keep pace with their male counterparts. And this sounds like a perfect mix of such characters … and dragons! Wonderful. Great review Chris

  2. Wow! I guess I was wrong to judge a book by it’s cover. When this was first published I ignored it based solely on the cover and title. But after such a ringing endorsement, I will be adding this to my to read list ASAP; it’s sounds like a great read.

    1. I think that, as well as being an adventure story, it’s very witty, but then it’s my kind of book — very believable once you allow such things as dragons to exist. Substitute, say, pigmy elephants or snow leopards or mountain gorillas and it’s not so far-fetched, so the story itself has to suffice. And that I did enjoy.

  3. This is a most attractive picture of an engrossing book. A story where there be plentiful wyrms. From your comments, though, one gets the impression that the males in the story are rather wishy-washy.

    1. The males are not the centre of attention, it’s true — it’s the proactive female that holds our focus. But that’s not to say the males are mere ciphers; we have a strict but fond father, a husband who is her equal but also protective towards her, a patron who recognises her worth, a jealous male colleague, distinctive head villagers, dastardly rulers. It’s definitely a man’s world but a couple of women with minds of their own also have key roles.

  4. Your review, added to what Marisa has told me of this book, makes me want to read it all the more. What do you think of the Chinese loong (no plural as loong is a Chinese word and has no plural)? Ken Liu (the author, have you read his stories or novel?) is adamant that loong are not Chinese dragons. I had never thought of it before I heard him speak of it, but it makes sense to me now. The loong and the naga are different beasts altogether and even if they have characteristics in common with dragons in Western mythology, I suppose it is presumptuous to draw comparisons in that direction. The default need not be dragon. It would be like always referring to dragons as Welsh etc loong.

    1. I was only aware of ‘loong’ in connection with lung mei, which made an impression in late sixties Western hippy culture as supposedly being similar to ley lines, claimed as prehistoric alignments of geomantic power. Sometimes called ‘dragon currents’ they cemented the impression of lung or loong being the equivalent of wingless western dragons, though I could never credit that equivalence. The Chinese loong is more of a composite beast, isn’t it, like a chimaera, whereas the Western dragon is more reptilian or serpentine.

      As for ‘naga’, I suppose they may be closer to Western dragons, as I understand the Sanskrit is cognate with other Indo-European words like ‘snake’. But I think I’m right in saying that naga are often shown with a snake-like body though they may have other attributes such as human features. I don’t know, I’d have to check.

      By the way, I discussed western dragons in this review: http://wp.me/s2oNj1-draig. The variety found in dragon physique has no doubt found its way into Brennan’s entertaining fiction!

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