A fictional memoir just became the best memoir I’ve read

A Natural History of Dragons
(Memoir by Lady Trent, #1)
by Marie Brennan

All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.

Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever. 

-via Goodreads

This may sound strange but it takes a fictional memoir to help me figure out what I want from actual memoirs – perspective!! Hear me out.

Lady Trent is an old woman, one who has been called a “national treasure”, induced by a publishing house to write a series of memoirs chronicling portions of her life. A Natural History of Dragons is the first memoir and begins with her precocious childhood.

Isabella is fascinated with ‘sparklings’, at the time considered insects that resembled dragons, and learns how to preserve them in vinegar. She is curious about the natural world in general but in dragons in particular. Questions, such as why do chickens have wishbones, lead her to read books in her father’s library to find the answers. Through such machinations as leaving a book catalogue open on her father’s desk she is able to read “A Natural History of Dragons” which cements her love of dragons and the course of her life, although she wouldn’t have known it at the time.

At fourteen, she recklessly dressed as a boy to ride out with the men to hunt down a wolf-drake dragon that was savaging sheep. Turns out wolf-drakes prefer female prey which outs her to the group, including her father. A result of this misstep enters Isabella into her self-proclaimed grey years wherein she dedicates herself to more womanly pursuits. It also demonstrates her headstrong personality and unfortunate ability to bring on trouble due to her curiosity.

Soon it is time to enter Society and find a husband. Her father does her a solid and provides her a list of eligible bachelors who have excellent libraries, carefully noting which contain her favorite book on dragons. He may not be able to allow her to take more manly pursuits to further her education but he can help her find a husband who will allow her to study to her heart’s content. As luck would have it, she meets one of the men on the list during a visit to the king’s menagerie. Jacob Camherst overhears Isabella’s conversation with the menagerie’s naturalist about the dragons and quickly joins in. She enjoys his company and hopes to become his friend, one with whom she can discuss shared topics such as dragons. Jacob is known to not be pursuing a wife. It turns out that their friendship ends with a proposal from Jacob.

In a charming scene that demonstrates the path of their marriage, Isabella is blunt, asking why he would propose to her. He is equally blunt, stating that she is the first woman to have any interest in him for a reason other than his money. She admits she has heard about his library which makes him laugh. She agrees to marry him and so begins their life together.

I’ll interrupt any plot points to return to my original point. The narrator is an old woman looking back on her life. She is clearly choosing which memories to share and how to share them. She also applies a layer of analysis or judgment or learning on certain memories which, to me, flushes out Isabella even more as a realistic person. Take this paragraph after her nuptials.

“As absurd as it may sound, I think that was the moment at which I realized I was truly leaving. This is something the gentleman readers of this memoir may not understand, but the ladies will know it all too well. If they are married, they have been through it already, and if not, I am sure they have devoted some thought to the matter. To marry means to leave home for another, and often one place for another. My own experience was not so disconcerting as that of royal brides who depart for another country, but from my family’s estate in Tamshire, on which I had spent virtually all of my young life, I know left behind everything I knew and removed to Jacob’s house outside Falchester.”

It’s a small commentary but illuminating to Isabella’s experience at that time. Instead of merely saying where she moved to or describing Jacob’s estate, she ruminates on the heady realization that everything is about to change. Those types of pauses in the memories add depth to the tale, something missing in many memoirs of actual living people that I’ve read.

I’ll skip ahead to the interesting action that follows. Jacob and Isabella meet a Lord Hilford and through a developing friendship are invited on an excursion to Vystrani to study dragons. Isabella is able to convince both her husband and Lord Hilford that she will be an asset on the trip. She can sketch what they find and file their notes for the eventual paper or book that will be written. They eventually agree and the expedition departs.

The ‘memoir’ takes an interesting turn at this point. Remember, there must be a reason why this particular portion of Lady Trent’s life is being recalled. While in Vystrana, a mystery occurs including smugglers, local villagers and politicians. Dragons are tracked and found. Men are hurt, even killed. Through it all, Isabella acknowledges that several of her choices have jeopardized her life or the lives of those around her. However, those same choices often result in helpful leads toward dragons or toward solving the overarching mystery of what is going on in Drustanev, the village where they are staying.

I don’t want to spoil the mystery. Suffice it to say there is intrigue and plotting and dragons and a tragic death. Isabella’s commentary heightens the tension and deepens the emotions. I truly believe that the author’s choice to have Lady Trent looking back on her life was the best one for this story. A purely linear tale from her point of view at the time of the action, when she was nineteen, wouldn’t have been as satisfying or tantalizing. The conceit allows Lady Trent to drop hints at stories that will be told in future volumes and dismisses other tales or rumors outright with no further explanation. For being set in a world where dragons exist alongside bears and foxes and birds, the characters were very human, especially the narrator.


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