I’ve kept seeing this book in book shops for a while now, liking the cover and making a mental note to buy it when I have the money. Last week, I had some money and a boyfriend who wanted to feel less guilty about buying board games, so I was persuaded that I really did want to buy some books now yes. So I got this, and The Golem and the Djinni, which I’ll be reviewing next.
I knew absolutely nothing about the book when I picked it up in Waterstone’s, except that it had a beautiful cover. The simplicity and the art do appeal to me a great deal – it manages to convey DRAGONS without making it OTT and old-fashioned looking. And the fonts are lovely. The art continues inside as well, and it manages to be both beautiful and very apt to the setting. It’s also one of those paperbacks with a relatively floppy cover, which means I can read it very easily without worrying that I’m going to damage the spine (important issues here). As it happens, my copy has suffered a little (it got knocked on the floor when another commuter bumped into me getting off a bus, so there’s a scuff at the top of the spine, and then it got put on a damp surface so there’s water-damage on the back bottom corner), but there comes the other thing that pleased me about the cover – it looks slightly mottled and stained (you can probably see it just next to the author’s name in the picture), so a little bit of my own staining has actually gone unnoticed. A triumph of book design, I’m sure you’ll agree.
The conceit of the book is that it’s the memoir of a pseudo-Victorian lady who went on to become a prominent scholar in the study of dragons, in an age when ladies were expected to look nice and find a good husband. The author has obviously done a lot of work and research to get the tone and details of this right – there are some wonderful minutiae of life that situate everything perfectly – but has then dropped it right into fantasyland. There’s a pleasing juxtaposition of very real-world struggles against a dragon-ful backdrop, with the dragons woven into the Victorian landscape beautifully – for instance with a dragon being the subject of a hunt with hounds when it wanders onto the lands of a wealthy Scirland family. There’s also none of the awe of dragons you find in so much fantasy. They are just another creature to the narrator. A fascinating creature, about which little is known in her society, but still just that. She portrays her love of dragons much like her contemporaries’ love of horses, for instance.
This fantasy without the fantastical, so real and down to earth even while full of the imaginary, is really really lovely. It’s here that the drawings really do make the book, because they portray dragons, not in dramatic poses, but as specimens to be meticulously catalogued and dissected, spread out so that details are visible.
The narrator’s voice – practical and down-to-earth and no nonsense – firms this up as well. There’s no frilly prose, nothing over the top, just a very realistic tone of a memoir, of someone who cares about a subject and wants to share that passion. Through the course of the first book (I was glad to discover this is part of a series), the narrator is young – nineteen through a lot of it – and so we get to hear her older self tutting over the naivety and silly “fluff-brained” behaviour her younger self got up to. We also hear opinions from her that are very uncomfortable today – about class, and gender and about how to treat people from other countries – and that you hear the beginnings of discomfort for in the tone of her older self, but without which the Victorian tone of the book would be toothless.
I cannot help but love the story. You want so very much for Isabella to succeed in the world of scholarship which is only open to men, and you see how she uses what society allows her and pushes ever so gently at the barriers to get what she wants. It is not a story of a woman saying “damn it all!” to convention, but one who subtly uses what she has and, with a bit of luck, manages to make of her life something she can live with and enjoy. I think that’s what I enjoyed most, the realism of her bowing to society while determined to find a way within the bounds of the acceptable to live her passions.
Overall, the book is beautifully written, and distressingly enthralling. I desperately wanted to know what happened next every time I put the book down, and cared so so much when something bad happened. The young Isabella is not universally likeable. She has her flaws, both those flaws which are of the time she is being written in, and her own, but the tempering voice of older, wiser and somewhat tutting Isabella is a good counterpoint, facepalming along with the reader at some of her younger self’s decisions. Older Isabella is a wonderful voice, full of knowledge and exasperation and nostalgia, and she is an absolute pleasure to read. So I’m going to buy the sequel as soon as I’ve finished the Golem and the Djinni.
I think this is genuinely one of my favourite books this year. There’s just nothing I can find to complain about, and everything works together wonderfully to produce a neat and clever little book. Would recommend.