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Marissa Lingen

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A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir By Lady Trent, by Marie Brennan [Oct. 22nd, 2012|03:39 pm]
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Review copy provided by Tor. Further disclosure: swan_tower, a.k.a. Marie Brennan, is a personal friend of mine.

When I was reading Tasha Alexander's first book in her mystery series, back in last fortnight's book report, I complained that her author's note about wanting to have a heroine who could be independent in a Victorian context actually looked fairly limited compared to the genuine Victorians' contexts. I find this happens a lot. When people say "Victorian" or "Victorian-inspired," they have ideas of what that means that are a lot more limited than the actuality of what you can find in actual memoirs from the actual Victorian period.

That's not the case here. While swan_tower is very much on the "inspired by and invoking" end of things than "portraying and depicting"--this is Scirland, not England/Scotland, the other countries are also different so it's not merely Ruritanian, the religions are different, the customs are reminiscent rather than intended to be exact copies, etc.--what she's done is in some ways much truer to the period than the works of writers who are convinced that people in general and particularly the women half of people never left the drawing room. The 19th century was an era in which we got much of modern chemistry and electromagnetics, for heaven's sake! That did not come out of playing gently at the pianoforte while one's suitor lounged on the divan and went into the city to do "something with business." I recently saw an internet troll scoffing at the idea of strong heroines in fantasy by saying that he wouldn't want to read a book about a peasant girl slopping the pigs, not paying attention to the fact that, sure, that was the average experience for a lot of women--and the average experience for a lot of men was right alongside them, slopping those same pigs and butchering them and doing other things that internet troll fantasy readers find equally uninteresting. Most protagonists are in some way non-average. There's some reason to make the book their book, whether they're male or female. And that's certainly the case with the eponymous Lady Trent.

swan_tower is playing with the conventions of a different genre here. A Natural History of Dragons is a coming of age story, but not with the same tropes we're used to in fantasy: no training sequence, no wise old mentor, or at least not in his usual guise of teacher/master. Childhood is of interest in that it contributes to what we already know about the eventual adult--hindsight is encouraged, filtering is not only crucial but conscious, on the page. And from this perspective Lady Trent can behave in ways that are characteristic of her time and yet indicate within the book that the things she did and said in her youth and the things she would do and say in her old age are not at all the same. The dual perspective highlights not only the changes in herself but particularly the changes in attitudes towards dragons. And this is where I really settled in and got happy.

One of my least favorite things in fantasy is worlds that seem static, worlds in which "unreliable narrator" can only mean "liar" and never just a person who made a mistake. With the Victorian-inspired memoir format, we can have things about dragons that are unknown, and things that are just known incorrectly--some of which are corrected right away, some of which may still be wrong and neither we nor Lady Trent will find out yet! Similarly, there are things about the culture she visits that she can have learned better since she was a callow young woman on her first foreign adventure, and yet still be a product of her culture at the time she is writing the memoir.

Tor goes even further in making this the book it was meant to be by providing illustrations in the appropriate style. When I received the ARC, I was worried that it wouldn't have them, but there they were, and they contribute quite appropriately to the story as it is told. I'm glad that they're part of this book in particular and also glad that with books like this one and Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan trilogy we're moving away from the model wherein books are either completely novels or completely comics/graphic novels, with nothing in between. Both of those were "period appropriate." It'll be nice if they can demonstrate with popularity that there is an audience for books whose illustrations are well-done and appropriate to the text so that they aren't always limited to one era or evoked era of tale-telling. And I say this as one of the least visual people you'd ever expect to meet.

The stakes here are also period-appropriate: I don't want to be spoilery, but we're dealing with the sorts of things you would expect a scientific expedition to be dealing with, not artificially inflating them to the Fate! Of! The! Universe! And as such, they remain with the characters and their personal concerns. There's no question of whether swan_tower will be able to "top this" with a sequel, because it's not about topping, it's not about attempting to recreate a giant explosion, it's about figuring things out, both about the world and about oneself. That doesn't preclude adventure scenes--the Victorian scientific travel memoir is steeped in adventure, and so is this. But it's a very personal kind of adventure, the kind that had Indiana Jones running around with artifacts, not the kind that had him hiding from nukes in refrigerators. (Good thing that never happened in any movie that exists. Ahem. Anyway.)

Sadly for you people, Tor wanted to get the buzz going early this time and put the Advance in Advance Review Copy, because A Natural History of Dragons is not scheduled to be out until February. But it's definitely worth looking for then.
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