I stumbled upon the name of this novelette while reading Warriors 2, which features another short story written by Howard Waldrop. There, The Ugly Chi...moreI stumbled upon the name of this novelette while reading Warriors 2, which features another short story written by Howard Waldrop. There, The Ugly Chickens was mentioned in glowing terms, so of course, I had to temporarily set aside that book in order to find out why.
Through a lucky coincidence, a buss passenger recognizes in the depiction of the long-extinct dodo, the ugly chicken she grew up with. The main character, a Master's student in ornithology, embarks on a quest to unravel the mystery of the dodos and to unearth the history of the family linked to them.
The richness of this story, a Nebula and World Fantasy Award winner, comes from the attention to detail for (re)building the family's history. As I read it, I was under the impression that I watched a show on the History Channel. The fact that the ornithologist has always been obsessed with dodos—he used to have dreams involving royal families and dancing dodos—only adds to the illusion of reality. Here we have the (overly) passionate scientists, in search of academic glory, who forgoes sleep and food, in order to pursue the mystery of a (literally) stupid bird.
The best part—the ending, which had me laughing out loud. Brilliant!
The second installment of the Lady Trent's Memoirs follows Isabella through her adventure on the continent of Eriga (a pseudo African continent), in p...moreThe second installment of the Lady Trent's Memoirs follows Isabella through her adventure on the continent of Eriga (a pseudo African continent), in pursuit of dragons and academic glory. As expected, after a short detour through the quagmire of the civilized society, the reader is dropped in the middle of local squeamishes, lavish forests that "eat" the intruders, and undignifying diseases.
What started as a young heroine, unsure about her place in the world and conflicted about her unbecoming desire for knowledge continues at full throttle. Isabella represents the epitome of a researcher, a woman who even today some would consider an unfit mother. She clearly favors dragons over her son and, by the end of the book, develops so much into a scientist that she ceases to feel guilty because of it. Moreover, her defying party of wannabe academicians is augmented by Natalie, the asexual friend who "elopes" with Isabella's scientific expedition. While Natalie's voice isn't as strong as the main character's, I found her sometimes even more enticing for her balance between levelheadedness and desire for experimentation.
In my opinion, it is this panoply of misfits that allures the reader. Between Tom, Natalie, and Isabella, the misfit in each of us is bound to identify with one of the characters (or perhaps with a combination of several characters).
I read this novel immediately after finishing A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent. Given this situation, the very similar structure of the two books was obvious. Both of them start very slow, by presenting interactions inside the Scriland good society. Both of them veer into Isabella's fight with her family (and other families) for her right to personal expression through study, research, and travel. The next third of the book(s) is dedicated to a sedate depiction of the "worlds" she visits, from the environmental conditions, to the social stratification, to random motley aspects. The tone in this section is always composed and the narrator's eye canvases its surrounding with a scientific aloofness. Even if drama and adventure make an appearance during this section (in both cases, we encounter friction due to lack of communication and cultural differences) the tone of the narration tempers the tension. It is in the last third of each book when the real "adventuring" occurs and when the reader scoots towards the edge of the chair. While I didn't mind a similar structure for the first two books, I hope that the third one in the series will introduce some variation and surprises.
As I mentioned in my review of "A Natural History of Dragons," what stands out in these books is the attention taken for building an alternate reality. Language, politics, society, zoology, ecosystems—no aspect is left unattended or undeveloped and the minute details pile up in conglomerates with perfect believability. And although, under regular conditions, some of these aspect would seem dry, the premise of the narrator being a scientist confers them authenticity, readability, and quirkiness. I maintain my opinion that a more detailed map is absolutely necessary for such a book. I have to admit that, without one, I was completely lost during the long stretch of politics presented during the agban episode. That the episode proved essential to understanding the later military machinations made the lack of a detailed map worse.
To wrap up, the engaging characters and the original setting render this reading a fascinating incursion into a world of (both human and draconic) discovery and adventure. * * * Also posted at Medley | Andreea Daia(less)
I received this book as an ARC/promotional copy. ~~~
Whether you are going to like or not this novel depends largely on whether you can get yourself in...moreI received this book as an ARC/promotional copy. ~~~
Whether you are going to like or not this novel depends largely on whether you can get yourself in the state of mind from a couple of centuries ago and whether you are willing to play along, pretending that you read a book written in that era. I believe this is where Marie Brennan's accomplishment is most remarkable: she strived to concoct a novel that mimicked in everything (from writing, to titles, to illustrations) the style of, let's say, Jules Verne. And she fulfilled her tasked laudably, though it's up to the reader to play his/her role in order for that success to be complete.
Let me start by stating that I found the "Fantasy" tag rather baffling, since "A Natural History of Dragons" fits in the Science Fiction, Alternate History category much better. Why? There is no magic, the dragons (while seemingly more intelligent than most beasts) don't speak or think, and the main character is a scientist, who lives in a like-England country and travels to a like-Easter-Europe region. If you expect an epic dragons story, you won't find it here. What you'll find though is a regency story about a wannabe she-scientist, who tries to live her dreams in a society that imposes countless limits on women's accomplishments. You'll encounter servants, and petticoats, and women chasing a marriage as if marrying is the crowning achievement of their lives. In this world, the main character tries to discover who she really is, a process that isn't fast—though, it is faster than in real-life.
I won't go into the summary of the plot, since by now, there are already plenty of reviews dripping with spoilers. Instead I'll try to focus on how Marie Brennan creates her own version of antiquated memoir. What will strike you first is the language of the narration and its dated style. The effort that went into recreating the peculiarities of that era's lexicon paid off—if I didn't know better, I would believe that this manuscript was centuries old. The use of real foreign words confers an added air of authenticity to the language, helping the reader navigate through an otherwise alien world. The is no penury of details when it comes to this alternate reality, from the economic, to the political and social aspects. I personally love how the global scarcity of iron is integrated with the plot, and instrumental in creating a believable reason for the villains' actions.
Then you have the splendid illustration by Todd Lockwood, reminiscent of my childhood Jules Verne's novels. I would have loved to see a map of this fictional world and the fact that one wasn't included left me rather disappointed. The Tropic of Serpents starts with a map, albeit a very narrow one, so perhaps the third installment will at last include a world map...
Finally, in order to create her faux-world, Marie Brennan recreates the dated customs of the English society from that time. Whether the reader is going to play along and pretend that this is the normal state of society is up to him/her. Isabella is by no means a proper lady and by the time the novel ends, she manages to break most taboos of her peers: she dedicates her life to science, she admits to having no motherly instinct, and she invests her money in scientific enterprises. The only aspect in which she is still "proper" is the lack of a lover—though considering that her husbands just died, that's understandable.
Although the novel starts a bit slow, the last hundred pages of the novel are genuinely page turners, in the spirit of Indiana Jones. By the time I reached the end, I yearned for more adventure. You have smugglers, locals with a thinking plagued by myths and legends, unexpected allies, and riveting adventures. Luckily The Tropic of Serpents is already published, which is my reading for the weekend.(less)