From the first time I saw A Natural History of Dragons it has been on my to-read list. Largely that was due to the fantastic cover illustration from Todd Lockwood, a fantasy illustrator and artist I’ve followed for over a decade and am permanently in awe of. I must admit, then, to have been a little disappointed that the book itself wasn’t actually a fictional treatise on the anatomy, life behaviour and ecology of dragons brimming with further colour illustrations. Instead it is the first of the Lady Trent Memoirs, a series set in a fictional, alternative Victorian universe where dragons are very much living, apex predators (most of the time).
The story follows the titular Lady Trent as she embarks on a career as a dragonologist (indeed, one of the first), despite the significant problem of her gender (this is Victoriana, you understand). The result is a surprisingly witty, relevant and wonderfully imaginative tale about dragon hunting in frigid mountains, beset both by the beasts themselves and the local political goings-on. The plot is exceedingly well scripted, developing a rich and diverse world whilst forging ahead at an impressive pace that borders on turning the novel into a page-turner. Luckily, the clever humour and strong characterisation prevent the action from taking centre stage, resulting in a surprising amount of emotional investment. The characters are full-bodied, with a pleasing lack of perfection yet few truly irritating traits, so you empathise with most of the cast. s a result the finale's sudden death comes as a genuine shock. You may not get to know her husband all that well but he is a likeable enough fellow whose absence I will mourn in the sequels. As a result, the finale's sudden death comes as a genuine shock. You may not get to know her husband all that well but he is a likeable enough fellow whose absence I will mourn in the sequels.
To be clear, A Natural History of Dragons is a very enjoyable, well-crafted book; it is not an instant classic or a must-read. I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in fantasy novels, strong female characters or speculative zoology. The latter point, personally, is where the series looks set to shine. If musing over the anatomy of fictional or imagined beasts is as enthralling to you as I find it then there is a lot to like here. The main dragons in the story are given considerable description and it’s a lot of fun reading a tale where the characters are genuinely attempting to study and record the fictional behaviours of these fantastical creatures. Better yet, dragons in this universe are not merely giant winged killing machines. The book starts with Lady Trent’s musings on the “Sparklings” she collected in her youth; tiny little firefly like creatures that are widely regarded as insects but may hold some deeper secrets. From the telling (and the illustrations) they’re closer to micro-dragons, found in huge abundances all over farmland, forests and even in back gardens. They’re a brilliant addition and bode well for a diverse, varied and biologically intriguing cast of species yet to be discovered.