I have always been partial to dragons so the title of this week’s recommended book was bound to attract me. `A Natural History of Dragons’ by American author Marie Brennan was published in 2013 and is now available in paperback or as an ebook. The subtitle – `A Memoir by Lady Trent’ – indicates that this is neither a textbook nor some vast multi-stranded Fantasy epic. What it offers is the life-story of a woman who defied convention to study dragons, told in her own words and pictures (the charming illustrations are actually by Todd Lockwood). Lady Isabella Trent’s memoirs continue in `The Tropic of Serpents’ (2014) and a third volume – `Voyage of the Basilisk’ – is promised for 2015. She lives in an era not unlike the Victorian period and her homeland  has much in common with 19th century Britain.

Isabella is a gentlewoman born in the island kingdom of Scirland, which lies off the coast of the continent of Anthiope. In a preface, ‘national treasure’ Isabella announces that she has decided to write a candid memoir explaining how and why she became a famous adventurer and dragon-naturalist. She begins with her childhood fascination with the dragon-like insects known as Sparklings and the impact of a book she manages to sneak out of her father’s library – Sir Richard Edgeworth’s `A Natural History of Dragon’. Isabella longs to study the dragons that inhabit parts of her world but after an unfortunate escapade involving a Wolf-drake, her mother makes it clear that this is not a suitable ambition for a young lady. Isabella is warned that her desire to be a scholar will damage her chances of getting married. The best she can hope for is a husband who may tolerate her bookish ways.

Isabella conforms and is miserable until the day she sees her first real dragons in the royal managerie and meets Jacob Camherst, a man unusual enough to admire intelligent women. After they are married, Isabella manages to persuade Jacob that they should both join Lord Hilford’s expedition to study the rock-wyrms of Vystrana. After a long journey to the remote mountain village of Drustanev, nothing seems to go right. The villagers are unwelcoming, the man who invited Lord Hilford to the area has disappeared, there are hostile smugglers in the mountains and the rock-wyrms have suddenly begun to attack people. Lord Hilford’s assistant,  Mr Wilker, disapproves of a woman being part of the expedition and Isabella fails to get on with Dagmira, the local girl who is supposed to be acting as her maid. After Isabella visits some ancient ruins of the Draconean civilization, bizarre things start to happen. Has Isabella really brought down a demon curse on the village, and can she solve the mystery of why the mountain dragons have suddenly become more dangerous?

The blurb made `A Natural History of Dragons’ sound like a light-hearted Steampunk Romance along the lines of Gail Carriger’s amusing `Parasol Protectorate’ series, but it turned out to be a more thoughtful book than I was expecting. Brennan hasn’t just added dragons to the Victorian era, she has used her background in anthropology to create a distinctive world. Each country has its own complex politics, social structures and religious beliefs (Vystrana is loosely Eastern European) but in all of their distant pasts was a civilization which worshipped dragons. This novel raises the question of whether magic is an essential part of Fantasy fiction.  There are no wizards or witches of the traditional kind in this story and the dragons are not depicted as wise supernatural beings. Rather, they are intelligent animals whose fierceness makes them difficult to study and almost impossible to keep in captivity. The diverse ways that humans mythologize such awe-inspiring creatures are explored in this series. The customs and superstitions of the peoples encountered by Isabella (the second volume is set in an Africa-like continent) do include some kinds of magic but the staunchly rational Scirlanders don’t believe in it. The reader has to make up her or his own mind about how real this magic is.

The plot of `A Natural History of Dragons’ borrows elements from the Thriller, Murder Mystery, Adventure and Romance genres. Isabella warns prospective readers that her memoirs are `not for the faint of heart’.  This isn’t a novel of non-stop action but Isabella certainly meets more than her fair share of perils. There is also a shocking plot-twist near the end of the story. If `A Natural History of Dragons’ was a conventional Romance, this might be the point at which Isabella and Jacob would finally come together. Brennan chooses to focus on her main characters’ marriage rather than their courtship. Isabella and Jacob are not passionate star-crossed lovers. No-one objects to this suitable match between two like-minded people but Isabella finds it hard to become the sort of wife that society expects her to be. Nor is it easy for Jacob to overcome his upbringing and give his wife the freedom she needs to flourish. Since Isabella’s moral and intellectual progress is the core of this novel, it’s essential for Brennan to make us care about her heroine.

Isabella is entertaining company but at first glance she doesn’t seem a very original character. The idea of an oppressed woman finding liberation through studying dragons has already been used by Robin Hobb in her `Rain Wild Chronicles’ and there is no shortage of intrepid Victorian heroines in popular fiction. The irrepressible Alexia Tarabotti from `The Parasol Protectorate’ and Elizabeth Peters’ dauntless Egyptologist, Amelia Peabody, are just two famous examples.However, as the book went on, I began to feel that Brennan was offering something a bit different. I’m guessing that she named her heroine after the courageous 19th century traveller and naturalist, Isabella Bird, but the novel often seems to poke fun at Bird’s appetite for extreme discomfort and her insistance on finding the locals `romantic’ (if you want to see what I mean, try reading Bird’s `A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains’).

In her memoirs, Lady Trent is looking back on a young woman who was frequently daunted by the situations her scientific curiosity got her into. She is also honest enough to admit that she found the boredom and discomfort of life in a primitive mountain village hard to endure and that she was slow to understand the point of view of Dagmira and the other inhabitants of Drustanev. Brave as she is, there is no pretence that Isabella can conquer anything armed merely with a parasol and strength of will. It is Isabella’s vulnerability, and her willingness to admit past mistakes, which makes her such an engaging heroine. I’m looking forward to finding out more about Isabella and her dragons in future volumes. Until two weeks time….