Author Marie Brennan's latest release, A Natural History of Dragons, is a delightful story for genre fans looking for a touch of historical romance in their fantasy. The story is a the fictional memoir of famed dragon anthropologist Isabella, Lady Trent. The book begins with her curious youth and leads up to her marriage and, soon after, her first voyage to document dragons in their natural habitat. Fictional memoirs are an up-and-coming trend in recent fantasy, so we asked the author why she chose to write this story of dragons from Isabella's point of view.
I don’t remember making a truly conscious decision to write A Natural History of Dragons in the format of a memoir. It was always in first person, from the moment I sat down to play with the idea; I don’t know when during that process it became apparent to me that I was writing it from an explicitly retrospective point of view.
I suspect I fell into that voice because it fit the time period so well. It’s possible to write in a different kind of first person, where the narrator is not consciously telling the story to an audience, but the “camera” is instead simply riding along in her head. Some people have a problem with that mode, because there’s no reason for the narrator to be narrating; I’m not one of them. (I’ve written that type of thing myself, most recently with Lies and Prophecy.) But it’s a modern style, not one you would find in Victorian times, and it wouldn’t have felt right for this series.
Besides, writing it in the memoir style is fun. I like Isabella being able to reflect and comment on her own behavior. She can foreshadow events later in the book, or even later in the series; she can justify explaining certain aspects of the world by contrasting them with how things are now for her (in-world) readership. It also lets me achieve a degree of distance from Isabella’s prejudices: sometimes she can acknowledge, with the wisdom and hindsight of her later years, that her perspective at the time was wrong. Which is not to say she’s a saintly old woman, of course -- far from it! -- but by calling some elements into question, I can make it clear to the reader that not everything my protagonist says should be taken at face value.
When we talk about “unreliable narrators,” usually we mean stories where the point-of-view character is outright lying to the audience, or hiding things from us. But there’s a sense in which all first-person narrators are unreliable, because their perspective is biased by their own experience. We’re used to third person POV, where anything the narrative says is usually taken to be the opinion of the author, and therefore an official comment: if the description says a character is ugly because of XYZ, then we assume the author thinks those features are ugly. I hope that the memoir format, with Isabella speaking directly to her audience, helps not only build her up as a character, but make it clear that the whole thing is in her voice, with all the virtues and flaws that implies.
Any point of view choice both gives you opportunities and imposes restrictions. There have been times where I wished I could step back and give you a view of the story not processed through Isabella’s filters ... but on the whole, the aspects I lose by writing in a memoir format are far outweighed by the gains.
- Marie Brennan