Why on earth have I not read this series before now? Because anyone who's checked out my Goodreads shelves or followed my blog knows that I am a hugeWhy on earth have I not read this series before now? Because anyone who's checked out my Goodreads shelves or followed my blog knows that I am a huge fan of Elizabeth Peters' Amelia Peabody series--and when I dived into Book 1 of the Memoirs of Lady Trent, I found a lot of similarity with the Amelias. Basically, A Natural History of Dragons felt to me like what you'd get if you took the Amelias, made them a secondary world fantasy instead of a mystery/adventure series set in our world, and had the heroine passionate about scientific study of dragons instead of Egyptology.
I was already drawn to reading this book for the "heroine wants to do SCIENCE!" angle alone, but once I actually started reading it, the overall Amelia-like flavor appealed to me greatly.
But of course since this is its own series, there will be differences as well. Our heroine, Isabella, starts her story as a young girl instead of the well-established lady of means that Amelia Peabody is at the start of her adventures. Isabella's attempts to gain her father's approval in her interest in sparklings leads into her need to find a husband who will do the same, and soon enough she meets and weds Jacob Camherst. All of this will probably feel very familiar to anyone who's read historical romances with heroines interested in science; the society Isabella grows up in is very akin to what you'll see in countless Regencies, where a woman must conceal her bluestocking inclinations if she wants to land a husband. Or, as Isabella puts it, her tendency to be an ink-nose.
Fortunately, that part of the story is fairly short. Matters really take wing once Isabella convinces her husband to not only join an expedition to study Vystrani rock-wyrms, but to take her with him as well. And this is where my love of the Amelias really came into play, because here's a couple interested in science, and going off to have adventures as they do so. Huge fun.
Moreover, with my author hat on, I was rather impressed by the worldbuilding in general. The story is presented as an elderly and now world-famous Isabella telling her memoirs, and so the narrative throws around multiple names of nations, laying down a worldwide scope and the clear expectation that Isabella expects her readers to understand what all these nations are. With those tidbits come all sorts of tasty little details to start sketching in what the reader "should" already know, and which whetted my appetite to visit these other places even as we follow Isabella, Jacob, and the rest of their party off on the adventure in this book. I particularly liked the intriguing hints we receive about the Draconeans, and the ancient history--or is it mythology? Or both?--involved with them.
With my reader hat on, I appreciated not only the Amelia-like flavor of the story, but also the juxtaposition of fantastic creatures and scientific inquiry, in a world on the brink of coming into its modern age. I likewise appreciated that the Isabella telling us her story is cognizant of her younger self's shortcomings, which encourages me to want to see how the younger Isabella grows and matures.
What else? I liked the explorations of culture clashes between Isabella's party and the people of the village where they have the bulk of the action, particularly when Isabella deals with Dagmira, the young woman who winds up acting as her maid. And artistically, I very much appreciated the illustrations scattered through the story as well. This made reading the book in digital form a bit tricky, as the paragraphs sometimes wrapped strangely around an illustration. But the pictures were captivating enough that I promptly went out and bought a print copy of both this book and book 2.
Because yeah, I'll want print copies of these as well as digital. And I'll be having a lot of fun plowing through the rest of this series. For this opening installment, four stars....more
As soon as I heard this was coming out I had to leap on it—because it’s a Lovecraft pastiche, and specifically one coming at his mythos with a femininAs soon as I heard this was coming out I had to leap on it—because it’s a Lovecraft pastiche, and specifically one coming at his mythos with a feminine perspective. Which I love. I’m another of those readers who adores the Lovecraftian mythos in general but who has significant problems with the author’s racism and sexism, so every time I see a modern author taking a crack at interrogating ol’ H.P., I just have to take a look.
This work hit me in the heart when I got to this quote:
She had never met a woman from the waking world. Once she asked Carter about it.
“Women don’t dream large dreams,” he had said, dismissively. “It is all babies and housework. Tiny dreams.”
The Carter here would be Randolph Carter, a recurring Lovecraft character, and in particular the protagonist of The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. I’ve read that work, and I have distinct recollections of coming out of it with a broad sense of “WTF did I just read?” even as I was quite impressed by the stream-of-consciousness fluidity of Lovecraft’s prose.
Kij Johnson does a splendid job of calling back to that fluidity with her own prose. Except this time, her protagonist is a woman. And not only a woman, but an experienced one who happens to be 55 years old. Vellitt Boe must set off to retrieve an errant student from her university, a young woman trying to escape out of the dreamlands into the waking world with her lover, which puts their entire city at risk of being destroyed by an angry god.
Her quest is every bit as large as Carter’s, underscoring what any woman of today who loves SF/F already knows: that all of us, regardless of gender, can dream without bounds or limitations. Yet at the same time, Johnson’s novella celebrates the waking world in ways you never see in Lovecraft. Yes, dreams can be amazing—yet so can the waking world be. Gods have power, but so does science. It’s a refreshing balance indeed.
Nor is Vellitt Boe the only female character active in this story, by a long shot. Several women of the university where Vellitt teaches appear at the beginning of the story. And several of the ghouls she encounters are in fact female, giving us a tale where it’s perfectly acceptable for the monsters as well as the humans to be so. And the student she tracks into the waking world, Clarie Jurat, is herself vitally important… though I shouldn’t say how, because spoilers. Instead, I’ll say, go read this novella.
A longer version of this review is posted on the blog Here Be Magic here....more