In the second part of A Natural History of Dragons, Isabella makes inadvertent progress on behalf of the expedition team, and ends up a long way from collecting sparklings…
Smugglers and ancient ruins and science, oh my!
Isabella gets to dissect and study her very first wild dragon in this part of the book, thus making all of her aggravation over her surroundings worthwhile. She is not getting along with Drustanev (the village where they’re staying while on their expedition) and is struggling to learn the Vystrani language. I really appreciate that Marie Brennan highlights these aspects of Isabella’s experiences in a foreign country, because much like the scientific approach she takes to having such hugely impressive mythical creatures as dragons in her story, it refuses to allow much room for the romanticisation of these things, while still leaving room to inspire awe. I feel like that’s a fine line to walk, but Brennan is certainly managing it well so far because I am definitely in awe.
Likewise, she has a deft touch when it comes to weaving worldbuilding into her story; we are getting a marvelous feel for what everyday life is like for Vystrani people, living practically side by side with wild dragons. It amused me, and made perfect sense, that while they understand the larger scale of the threat the dragons represent, they’re still basically treating them like any other wild animal native to their country: stay out of their way, and we can all just go about our own business. Except that now, for some unknown reason, the dragons are starting to attack people. Naturally there must be a reason for it, so it becomes even more important to find a specimen and study it, in the hopes of figuring that reason out.
Enter Isabella, who may not be entirely fearless but is certainly a damned brave woman, who doesn’t take long to get restless and fixate on achieving her goals – and not even an unexpected run-in with some local smugglers can stop her. In fact, it ends up helping, because with their local guide still mysteriously missing, the expedition team are going to need someone’s help figuring out the rougher terrain in order to stay on track. Naturally, a band of smugglers are the next best thing – and they’re at risk as much as anyone from these dragon attacks, so when Isabella inadvertently crosses their path and realises they’re speaking a language she can (finally!) understand, it doesn’t take long for her to work out a deal with them to keep the expedition from stalling further.
This lady is unstoppable and I cannot love her fiercely enough. And I suspect that Jacob, for all his exasperation, may be feeling the same way. THESE TWO. YOU GUYS. I SHIP IT.
… Does it count as a ship if they’re already married and whatnot? I’m going to go with yes. Yes, it bloody does.
Another thing I am coming to appreciate, as I mentioned before, is that the dragons in this world are unlike any dragons I’ve read about before. These ones are not magically able to speak human languages (that I know of), and this isn’t like Temeraire where they can learn to be civilised and cook their food and bond with humans. These dragons are wild, and it shows. As Isabella herself points out in the narrative, they can’t very well conduct a scientific study of a dragon specimen over tea – they’re here to hunt one, kill it, and get to the studying that way. The dragon may not appreciate it much, but it’s the only way that works. They’re here for science, not making friends. So already, there’s going to have to be a repression of my “but dragons!” flailing urges. I am totally guilty of being one of the pearl-clutching sympathisers Isabella rolls her eyes at, but I can do this. For science, I can do it!
And if that wasn’t intriguing enough work, Isabella and Lord Hilford later get to explore some local ruins that provide tantalising hints of an ancient ‘Draconean’ civilisation. There are fascinating statues of dragon-headed men (gods?), and inscriptions on stones that no one can translate (ooooooh). Naturally, Isabella is in her element – and even discovering that these ruins have, like the system of caves in the area, been in use by smugglers can’t dampen her enthusiasm or slow her down; she discovers their hiding place among the ruins by falling through a concealed hole in the ground, into one of those caves. Being nobody’s damsel in distress, she gets herself back out in short enough order, though not without leaving a polite note of apology for the smugglers in case they come back and are alarmed that somebody apparently found their hiding spot. Because of course she would leave a note.
ISABELLA I LOVE YOU.
So she has, more or less singlehandedly, worked out a mutually beneficial arrangement with a band of smugglers, discovered a naturalist’s playground to offset all of her frustration with being stuck somewhere and not enjoying it, and is (to my absolute delight and admitted relief because I despise such ‘storylines’) avoiding being at odds with her often exasperated husband by *ahem* discovering some time-honoured means of expressing appreciation, instead.
On that note, and I suspect I will be saying this often and loudly, I am in love with Old Lady Narrator Isabella. She clearly has many stories to tell and no fucks to give, in the best way of all old ladies who have seen and done so much. She has no time for the disapproving clucking of younger hens, and I am right in her corner.
I’m going to really enjoy this series. I’ve just got a feeling.