Posts Tagged ‘Marie Brennan’

Throughout Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent books, there are frequent mentions of an important book. A Natural History of Dragons, by Sir Richard Edgeworth, is a fictitious tome read by Isabella Camherst while a child. As the only scientific study of dragons in its time, it propelled Our Heroine into her early fascination with dragons.

A signal feature of this book is its list of Identifying Criteria, which are meant to separate dragons from other sorts of beasts or birds. Isabella frequently refers to the Identifying Criteria in her memoirs, but alas — I can’t find an actual list of what those criteria are.

Still, the very idea of Identifying Criteria is so interesting that I’ve attempted to tease them out. Most of my list is based on Brennan’s books, and part is based on universal dragon lore. Although this isn’t Edgeworth’s own list of defining characteristics, I hope I’ve come pretty close.

6) Extraordinary breath. This is frequently mentioned in the books. Every true dragon has some sort of breath weapon, from flame to noxious fumes to jets of water.

5) Rapid decomposition. Brennan doesn’t explain why, but every type of dragon crumbles into ash upon death. A major plot running through the series begins when a scientist discovers a method to preserve dragon bones. As a naturalist, Isabella wants to study these bones. Others just want to make weapons with them.

4) Flight. Functional wings are key, along with other anatomical features such as a flexible tail, crest or frill on the head and neck, and four limbs. (Land-dwelling dragons have paws, while water-dwellers have flippers.) In an early chapter, Isabella encounters a wolf-drake, which is considered less than a true dragon because its wings are too small to carry it aloft.

3) Great size. Another early dragon encounter is with sparklings, which are no more than a few inches long. Because they are so small, sparklings have traditionally been classified as insects rather than dragons.

2) Reptilian. Scaly skin is implied to be a dragon characteristic, even in amphibious varieties.

1) ??? Here’s where I get stuck. Dragons have several more common descriptors. They are predatory, for instance, and often seem to have human or nearly-human intelligence. However, both of these could also apply to any number of other creatures. Lions and tigers and bears (oh my!) are all predators. Whales and wolves seem to have a high order of intelligence. None of these would be confused with a dragon.

At this point, I’ll open it up to you, my friends in blog-land. What do you think the final Identifying Criteria for a dragon could be?


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This is the second of the Lady Trent novels. I reviewed the series starter a week or so ago. Isabella, intrepid as ever, is preparing for her second expedition to study dragons in the war-torn continent of Eriga. She faces opposition from her family, who believe she ought to stay home with her two-year-old son. Inevitably, she also becomes embroiled in the political maneuverings of various governments with interests in the region. In exchange for permission to study the dragons, she ends up making a promise that she might not be able to keep.

In some ways it’s a slower book. Isabella has to find her way in two very alien societies to her own and confront how much she, a wealthy person, is accustomed to being catered to. On the positive side, the author backed off having Isabella take so many crazy chances in order to move the plot. She still takes crazy chances, but they flow more logically from the character than in the first book.

The dragons Isabella is trying to study are wonderfully complicated and wrapped up in the culture of the nomadic Mouleen people. Dragons, lurking in the rivers and swamps, act as a natural barrier to outside invasion and thus protect the people. “The jungle will eat you” is not an idle turn of phrase!

The people, in return, have a priestly class whose duty is to manage the dragon population. They observe matings that involve just a few huge females, and can tend eggs in a way that produces additional females as needed. They also spread eggs all over the swamp, so the hatchlings won’t prey on each other. Baby dragons are like piranhas, it seems, and they play their part in the outcome of the story just as the adults do.

It isn’t what you’d think of as a friendly dragon-and-rider relationship, but dragons and people depend on each other all the same. I enjoyed Brennan’s original thinking here and look forward to the third book.

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This book, published by Tor in 2013, is the starter of a promising series that combines classic fantasy with a steampunk-inspired setting. The main character, Isabella, is born with keen scientific interests. Her special love for learning about dragons propels the story. Alas for Isabella, her Victorian styled homeland disapproves of women having such interests. The first few chapters detail how her very conventional mother kept throwing away her experiments.

Isabella internalized these negative messages, frequently referring to herself as an “ink nose,” yet she couldn’t let go of her passion for science. While living at home, she enlisted one of her brothers to borrow books from the family library and pass them to her. In her “season” of searching for a husband, she started with a list of men who might be open-minded enough to let her read from their libraries, too.

This character is very telling for modern girls and women who are interested in science but continually receive negative feedback. Yet Isabella also infuriated me in the way the author turned her unconventional drive for knowledge into a very conventional, stupidly reckless “female curiosity.” She made a great deal of noise about being practical, yet continually got into dangerous situations without any sort of planning or escape route. Her poor husband, Jacob, was left scrambling to figure out where she went. I was disappointed in Brennan for falling back on a stereotype that’s just as damaging as the one she was trying to refute.

But… the dragons! There are several varieties, including the charming Sparklings found in Isabella’s garden and hedges. This book revolves mostly around larger, more dangerous Rock-Wyrms that Isabella wangles her way into a field expedition to study. Rock-Wyrms that have mysteriously begun to attack humans all around the study region. One of the most important discoveries their expedition makes is that Rock-Wyrms bury their dead. This behavior raises the possibility that dragons aren’t just savage beasts, but possess some degree of intelligence.

Despite my complaints, I enjoyed this book and plan to follow the series as it unfolds.

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