First, a disclaimer: I typically do not care to review an entire series at a stretch. Yet when a series flows into each other and there are enough similarities that warrant talking about a series as a unit, then it makes sense to complete a joint review.
I’m a picky fantasy reader, as you all know by now. But my sister had reviewed A Natural History of Dragons and called it a novel of manners. Um, yes please. If something warrants a novel of manners label, I am all in. And so, I spent this week immersing myself in the fictional fantasy memoirs of natural dragon scientist, Isabella, Lady Trent. I’ll provide a brief recap and review of each book, then of the series. I have lots of thoughts.
A Natural History of Dragons is the first Lady Trent memoir. It chronicles the story of Isabella as a child and young adult, her first fascination with science and natural history, and the frustration she feels by her oppressive society. While she wants to ride horses and participate in sporting outdoorsy activities, society insists that she wear dresses, sing, draw, and be an acceptable match for a suitable husband. It is her love of books and a chance encounter with a sparkling (an insect-version of a dragon) that provides Isabella with a secret outlet, one that will orchestrate a chance meeting with the man who will become her husband and the chance to escape a conventional life. It is on the expedition that will change everything that Isabella learns about the things in life worth having.
The Tropic of Serpents continues Lady Trent’s adventures with a more politically oriented adventure. Isabella, her business partner, and her best friend embark on a trip to a land to explore dragons in a swamp land known as Green Hell. There, they must navigate politically dangerous waters and continued threats to their lives. But there, Isabella takes to the skies by experimenting with a glider, just as she tries to figure out a way to preserve dragonbones.
The Voyage of the Basilisk chronicles Isabella’s two-year voyage on the ship Basilisk as she traverses the Broken Sea with her business partner, her young son, and his governess. They try to discover the patterns of sea-serpents, but a storm beaches their ship, and they are forced to again make peace with the people of the island upon which they are stranded. Isabella’s fearlessness will once again endanger her life and enable her to make scientific discoveries that can make her famous.
The first book is entertaining, but not my favorite novel of manners parody. It does set up Isabella as an interesting character, and there are enough dragon bits that are both scientific and literary in scope. I gave this three stars, because it was diverting, without a really strong story that drew me in. I think that Mary Robinette Kowal’s first Glamourist Histories book was stronger, to be honest.
The second book is the weakest, in my opinion. To quote my Goodreads review in sum, “NOT ENOUGH DRAGONS.” Dude. Going political is well and good, but you promised me dragons. The book was just okay. I gave it three stars, because what dragon bits were there were quite good. The rest of the story suffered, but it was still entertaining enough, and Isabella is an engaging narrator.
I feel like the third book was the strongest, because it married the adventure aspect of the book with the dragon aspect that makes the series unique and entertaining. I hope that the fourth book remains consistent in tone with the third, because it is engaging and entertaining without sacrificing any of the natural history dragon parts that drew me to the series in the first place. I gave this book four stories, because it was a stronger entry and combined elements of adventure and science to set itself apart from the other two books. The memoir aspect is also strongest here, because it alludes to other “published” works of Lady Trent but sets itself as a fill-in-the-gaps kind of book that will set the record straight.
Something I forgot to mention: the drawings are gorgeous. Truly. They enhance the novel and make you feel as if you are part of the adventure, too.
I still prefer the Glamourist Histories, but if you’re looking for an entertaining enough series, you can’t go too wrong with this one. I did enjoy it, and I think Marie Brennan is a talented writer. I liked the originality of the idea, and I have high hopes that she can capitalize on the uniqueness of her series by providing a sequence of dragons worthy of Lady Trent.