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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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