I am excited to welcome author Marie Brennan, who is celebrating the release of her latest novel, A Natural History of Dragons.
You, dear reader, continue at your own risk. It is not for the faint of heart—no more so than the study of dragons itself. But such study offers rewards beyond compare: to stand in a dragon’s presence, even for the briefest of moments—even at the risk of one’s life—is a delight that, once experienced, can never be forgotten. . . .
All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.
Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.
Marie Brennan introduces an enchanting new world in A Natural History of Dragons.
Make sure you stick around to the end. We’ll be giving away 3 copies of A Natural History of Dragons.
Literary Escapism: Can you introduce us to some of the characters we’ll be meeting in A Natural History of Dragons? Was there any character that surprised you or took more of a center stage than you anticipated?
Marie Brennan: The research team on the Vystrani expedition is made up of Isabella; her husband Jacob Camherst; their patron Maxwell Oscott, the earl of Hilford; and Thomas Wilker, who is Lord Hilford’s assistant and protege. Tom Wilker wasn’t really planned — I just decided Lord Hilford needed somebody of that sort, given that he’s both a peer of the realm and a somewhat elderly fellow. So then Tom Wilker needed a personality, and various things grew out of that, and the next thing I know, he’s attached himself to the second book of the series, too.
The other character who got a bit out of hand was Dagmira, a young woman in Drustanev, the village where the expedition has set up its base. I had always planned to have someone like her show up; it was important to me that Isabella not be the only important female character in the story. But I didn’t plan for her personality. Isabella — who has trouble with the Vystrani language — dubs her “the incomprehensible Dagmira,” but she isn’t so much incomprehensible as disinclined to slow down and explain things to the stupid foreigners.
LE: Your previous books feature magic heavily and oftentimes are from the perspective of a magical being and their relation to a nonmagical world. This seems to change in A Natural History of Dragons as Isabella is a fairly normal character who scientifically studies magical creatures. What created this subtle change and how do you foresee it affecting future works?
MB: You’re right that this series is different in that respect. There’s a type of fantasy called “Ruritanian,” after the fake European country in Anthony Hope’s Prisoner of Zenda novels. The term gets used for non-magical fantasy, like Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark books; arguably Isabella’s memoirs count as Ruritanian, too.
I think the shift is an outgrowth of the decision, right from the start, to treat the dragons of this world in a naturalistic manner, rather than making them sentient, magical creatures like they are in most fantasy. Of course, they’re still arguably magical: I may handwave things about their biology to explain how they can fly or exhale things like ice, but when you get right down to it, that’s still pretty fantastical. Once I decided to make them semi-natural, though, that set the tone for the whole series: this isn’t a world in which you have immortal faeries running around, or people slinging spells.
It isn’t a total shift, though; I see it as being related to the “faerie science” developed in the Onyx Court books. And it doesn’t mean that I won’t do more fantastical things again in the future! It’s fun to play around in different registers of fantasy.
LE: How has the experience of writing a narration in the character’s voice in A Natural History of Dragons differ from your previous writing style?
MB: The Victorianesque approach flows fairly naturally out of the style I was using in the Onyx Court books, but being first person (and a very different kind of story), it’s much more conversational and lighthearted in tone. The problem is that, after four books of that series and two so far of this one — I just finished a draft of the second book — I have trouble getting out of this voice! I was trying to write something a while back from the viewpoint of a modern American teenager, and I kept catching myself using phrases and sentence structures that don’t suit that kind of narrator. Isabella would say “Had I known;” a modern American is more likely to say “If I’d known.” Etc. Small differences, but they add up pretty fast.
LE: Your books have a very English air to them yet you are American. Why do you think this may be the case and what experiences of yours may have influenced this writing tone? Were you inspired by any particular English authors or historical figures?
MB: Well, Americans get exposed to a fair bit of British history and culture in the normal way of things: Shakespeare, Dickens, pseudo-English fantasy, etc. In fact, thanks to Tolkien and Lewis and so on, we’re sort of conditioned to think of fantasy as being English: have you ever noticed how rarely characters in secondary-world fantasy films have American accents?
I was probably influenced by all the Diana Wynne Jones I read as a kid, but mostly I’d trace it back to specific circumstances. The Onyx Court series came from a role-playing game I ran, and that game was set in London because I needed a city that a) had a history going back further than anything in the United States, b) was easy to research, and c) would be reasonably familiar to my players. London fit that bill better than, say, Rome, or Shanghai, or Baghdad. As for Isabella, the desire to write about a female dragon-focused version of Darwin led me naturally to a British model.
I still could have based Isabella in a non-British culture, I suppose. Had I thought up her series at a point when my brain wasn’t full of London, I might have done that. As it stands, I’m actually glad Isabella’s traveling to a variety of places; while I do find England interesting, it’s hardly the only interesting thing out there, and a change of scenery is good. The ideas I have for series apart from or after this one are mostly not British-based at all.
LE: You have written books which are set in a world of your own making as well as books set in an alternate history. How does your writing process change between the two? Do you have a preference as to which type of world you like to focus on?
MB: My preference is not to focus, honestly. I’ve done a secondary world, historical fantasy, pseudo-historical, and a sort of near-future alternate history; the variety is satisfying, and keeps me from getting bored. As much as I enjoyed working with real facts in the Onyx Court, if I did that all the time, I’d start to chafe at the constraints it imposes on me. (Also, three months of intensive research before I can even start writing is not something I want to go through every time.) The flip side is that that sort of thing is enjoyable, and the research I did for it let me play games that just aren’t possible in something I’m inventing out of whole cloth.
So I expect I’m likely to go on sliding back and forth between the different types, and trying things I haven’t done before, too. Maybe someday I’ll even try my hand at some honest-to-god science fiction . . . .
LE: If given the opportunity to spend a year in the life of any of your characters, which would you choose and why?
MB: A lot depends on which year . . . Kim’s life at college in Lies and Prophecy is mostly pretty cool, with the psychic powers and all, but I wouldn’t want to face the year that’s covered by the novel. Some things are more fun to read about than to live through, you know?
My sister’s going to laugh at me for saying this (she’s always giving me a hard time for being a sadist), but I don’t think I’d pick any of the Onyx Court characters. As nifty as it would be to wander around history, I set up their lives to have a few too many problems for me to want to experience them first-hand.
So I think I have to go with Isabella. The story she exists in is a fun one, and I wouldn’t mind seeing a dragon or two!
LE: If you were confined to gender limitations such as Isabella, what would your ‘ladylike’ hobby be and if any, your ‘unladylike’?
MB: My “ladylike” hobby would be music. I took seven years of piano lessons when I was a kid; I recently bought a piano of my own, because I missed playing. Mind you, the kind of music I like to play mostly isn’t the genteel, delicate music considered suitable for ladies back in the nineteenth century, but still — as hobbies go, it’s fairly respectable.
My “unladylike” hobby would undoubtedly be martial arts. I’m a brown belt in karate, and used to do fencing, which is another thing I’d like to get back to. My house is decorated with weapons (six swords, a variety of knives, and a hand-crossbow my parents gave me for Christmas one year). I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t pass muster in Isabella’s world!
Meet Marie Brennan!
Marie Brennan is a former academic with a background in archaeology, anthropology, and folklore, which she now puts to rather cockeyed use in writing fantasy. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to many short stories and novellas, she is also the author of A Star Shall Fall and With Fate Conspire (both from Tor Books), as well as Warrior, Witch, Midnight Never Come, In Ashes Lie, and Lies and Prophecy. You can find her online at SwanTower.com.
Want to purchase Marie’s novels?
A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent
Lies and Prophecy
Thank you Marie for taking the time to stop by Literary Escapism!
Marie is giving away 3 copies of A Natural History of Dragons. To enter, all you have to do is answer this one question: If you were confined to gender limitations such as Isabella, what would your ‘ladylike’ hobby be and if any, your ‘unladylike’? Remember, you must answer the question in order to be entered.
Even though I’m not giving the additional entries any more, you can still help support the author by sharing their article, and this contest, on your blog, Twitter, Facebook, or anywhere you can. After all, the more people who are aware of this fabulous author ensures we get more fabulous stories.
The winner must post a review of the novel someplace. Whether it is on their own blog, Amazon, GoodReads, LibraryThing or wherever, it doesn’t matter. Just help get the word out.
The contest will stay open until February 28th at which time I’ll determine the winner with help from this snazzy plug-in that I have.