First in a fantasy series set in a pseudo-Victorian world.

Publication year: 2013
Format: print
Publisher: Tor
Page count: 333
Illustrated by Todd Lockwood

“Be warned, then: the collected volumes of this series will contain frozen mountains, foetid swamps, hostile foreigners, hostile fellow countrymen, the occasional hostile family member, bad decisions, misadventures in orienteering, diseases of an unromantic sort, and a plentitude of mind. You continue at your own risk. It is not for the faint of heart–no more so than the study of dragons itself.”
Isabella is a child who is cursed with curiosity for the natural world. Cursed because she’s a girl and studying anatomy, of any creature, just isn’t proper for a young lady to do. However, Isabella is the only girl child in her family, with five brothers and they live in the countryside so there aren’t too many restrictions on her. At the tender age of seven, she becomes obsessed with dragons. And once she confesses to her father that she’s very interested in the natural sciences, he decides to help her. He allows her to borrow books from his library from time to time, provided that her mother doesn’t know about it.
But when she’s 12, the locals go out to hunt a wolf-drake, Isabella is determined to go with them. She knows how to ride but not how to shoot. She disguises herself as a boy and blackmails her way into the hunting party. Unfortunately, things don’t go well and she has to abandon her studies for years and become a proper lady instead. Then, she has to lure a husband.

This book is written as a memoir so we know that Isabella is able to do very impressive things and survive to a ripe old age to write the books. Often enough, she puts in small interjections, such as how foolish she was when she was young or how she didn’t know something that she knows now. If you don’t like that style, don’t pick up this book!

This also not an action book, either. It focuses on the relationships between the characters and on adventure and discovery. The dragons are very dangerous animals which eat humans and cattle, so it’s hard to observe them. Also, they’re more talked about than seen. But when we do seem them, it’s always special. As a wealthy gentlewoman at a time when she’s supposed to just stay at home and have kids, Isabella encounters and overcomes many obstacles. However, thanks to a supporting husband those obstacles aren’t too much (of course, if they were, there wouldn’t be a book or it would a very different kind of book). To be fair, she also observes how the society restricts men as well.

Isabella is a smart woman but, like her older self admits, she’s also very young and inexperienced at this point. Her obsession with dragons takes over her life, leaving little time for anything else. She can be stand-offish to people around her. But she’s not deliberately cruel, just thoughtless and very, very imperialistic. She doesn’t bother to learn the names of some of her servants and describes them rather uncharitably. She’s also the only woman (or man for that matter) in this book who rises above society’s expectations.

There are several kinds of dragons in this world. Some we only see once and don’t know much more about them. Sparklings are the smallest, the size of insects. Indeed, they are classified as insects before Isabella starts to study them in earnest. Rock-wyrms are far larger and more dangerous to humans and other creatures. All the dragons seem to share a peculiar feature: their hollow bones disintegrate in sunlight, leaving nothing behind to study after they die. However, sparklings can be preserved in vinegar.

This is an alternate world fiction so things like religion are somewhat different than in our world but their inspirations are quite recognizable. I enjoyed the book and the writing style, which rather reminded me of Amelia Peabody.

I was expecting an excruciatingly long courtship with lots of unsuitable suitors but thankfully that didn’t happen. I’ve read a few reviews and knew beforehand that this first book at least wouldn’t have many dragons in it, despite the name. And I’m also fascinated by treating the dragons as wild, untamable animals. I can’t help but hope that in a later book they might turn out to be intelligent, after all. But I don’t really think that’s likely.