I can only assume that the reason we haven't seen something as quietly brilliant as Marie Brennan's 'A Natural History of Dragons' long before now is because the fantasy genre has been struggling for decades to dig its way out of the steaming mound of sub-par Tolkien clones that compensated for their lack of originality with an excess of length. Because part of the brilliance of Brennan's concept is that it's so gobsmackingly obvious that as soon as you hear about it, you wonder why nobody has ever thought of it before.
For those of you unfamiliar with the book, it's a memoir written by "Lady Trent", a scholar and a gentlewoman who's made her life's work the study of dragons in their natural habitat. Brennan takes as her inspiration both classic romantic novels (think Jane Austen) and legendary writings on natural history to turn the entire idea of the dragon on its head. She places it into an ecosystem, treating it like a real animal that has habits, biology and a place in nature, and writes an incredibly moving and fascinating story about a young woman who decides to learn everything she can about these rare and fantastic creatures.
For this to work, everything else has to be absolutely grounded in reality, and Brennan does not disappoint. She writes a pseudo-Victorian fantasy world that feels textured and multi-cultural, sprinkling in details about religion and history and society that makes sense as an actual world and not merely window dressing for the dragons. The plot is also clever, interesting, well thought out and holds tantalizing hints for future volumes (there are at least three more books in the series) but the amazing achievement is the way it feels like a true story written by a real woman in a world that just happens to not technically exist.
In case I'm not making myself clear, I adored this book. It makes its stunning conceit seem effortless in a way that only a genius can, and it's a charming page turner that feels like Jane Austen collaborated with Charles Darwin. It's a wonderful sign for the fantasy genre that we're getting books like this out of it.