The preface drew me in with its strong voice and promise to relate the adventure-filled career of a lady naturalist in an alternate Victorian age, studying dragons. The book itself is entertaining, but doesn't quite live up to that promise.
A Natural History of Dragons is the first in what looks to be a long series of fictionalized memoirs of Isabella, Lady Trent, a dragon naturalist. In this book, Isabella briefly takes readers through her childhood, courtship and marriage, then moves on to spend the bulk of the pages describing her first scientific expedition: from her quasi-English homeland to the quasi-Eastern-European mountains. Very little is known about dragons in this world, and Isabella and her companions seek them out with limited success, while meanwhile she must struggle against the restrictive gender expectations of her time.
This is a short, quick read, and an entertaining novel. It's not action-packed and the dragons' appearances are fairly limited, but if you enjoy historical fiction as well as fantasy, you and this book will likely get along well. The older Isabella, the supposed author of the memoir, has a strong and believably Victorian voice, and the world is interesting and grounded as much in historical fiction and anthropology as in fantasy, such that it feels more real than your average secondary world. Isabella is a bold and active protagonist, always up for an adventure. And the book does a great job of making fantasy elements feel realistic; dragons here are just another species of wild animal (albeit a particularly difficult one to study), and are given an entertainingly scientific treatment.
But while the book is certainly competent, some problems hold it back. The character development is nothing special, and Isabella's adult voice is more engaging than her 19-year-old personality; despite her interest in science, she tends to come across as a silly heroine who's always running off and getting into trouble. The action elements toward the end feel rather forced, and the book brings little new to the treatment of its themes. Finally, filling the entire (short) book with only one of Isabella's many expeditions seems a little indulgent, and one wonders if a memoirist would really record so much minutiae in the story of her life. I'd happily have read a longer novel about her, but am not sure my interest will extend to the half-dozen or more books that Brennan will need, at this rate, to tell the complete story. Which is too bad, because Isabella will likely only get more interesting as she matures.
At any rate, an entertaining book, and worth a read if you enjoy historical fantasy or want to read about women scientists or a scientific treatment of dragons. If you like this, you will probably also enjoy [b:Tooth and Claw|344623|Tooth and Claw|Jo Walton|http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1312040851s/344623.jpg|422657], a similarly Victorian fantasy in which all the characters are dragons.