Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Review: A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent

After listing to two very intense books I wanted something lighter. Browsing Sci-Fi options at our library turned up what seemed like a winner: A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan.

Quickly, I found myself enjoying Brennan's faux-memoir. The premise and story-line held my attention, and the notion of being immersed in an enchanted land where dragons were a thing was just the break from reality I needed. Sure, I don't usually read about dukes and earls, but even I could get onboard with a little victorian'esque adventuring.

The book adds depth by showing the obstacles Lady Trent navigates as she tries to be more than the prim and proper head of household society says she must be. I could see reading this book with kids and using her challenges as a jumping off point to understand a host of issues where society has boxed people in.

One device I had to smile at was how Brennan puts a series of summary statements at the beginning of each chapter. These seem out of place, but were reminiscent of Joshua Slocum's Sailing Alone Around the World published in the late 1890's. My guess is that chapter summaries were a thing back then, and as a nod to completeness Brennan follows suite.

I also appreciate how A Natural History of Dragons manages to put science front and center even while covering a topic that's complete fiction. It underscores what science truly is: the search for truth through observation. It's tempting to think of science as the stuff of textbooks, when in reality it's far more active and far reaching. Again, there's depth here that's elegantly packaged as entertainment.

My comments on A Natural History of Dragons should end here. It was a fun and thought provoking book, what else is there to say? But one of Brennan's choices has left me with an additional heap of questions.

Recall that A Natural History appears to take place in an alternate, but familiar universe. The places, seasons and months for example were all, to my ear, made up. So when we learn that locals of Vystrana are "Temple Worshipers" who celebrate the "Feast of Reception" I didn't give it much thought. Buddhist, Jews, Mormons and Mayans to name a few could all be classified as temple worshipers so it seemed an appropriately vague religious description.

Fast forward a couple chapters and things get interesting. The townspeople are convinced that Lady Trent and her band of explorers have brought evil spirits into town. We know this because they form a mob and descend on the group armed with--get this--graggers. OK, so townsfolk using a primitive noisemaker to stamp out evil spirits seems reasonable, but groggers? Then Lady Trent informs us that she'd only ever seen graggers used during the Tale of the casting of lots.

Hold up. Groggers? Lots? She's clearly talking about Purim, which is Hebrew for lot. From then on, I realized that the religion of Vystrana isn't some made-up invention; it's Judaism. Mikva, mechitza and shiva, to name just a few concepts are all mentioned. We get a glimpse inside the local temple and find a stone alter, the sort precisely prescribed in the Torah. And we learn that there's a ner tamid, the same light that every synagogue today has that remains lit at all times. And the Feast of the Reception? To my ear, that sounded originally like a Christian holiday. But in hindsight, Brennan is clearly referring to Shavuot: the holiday Jews celebrate as when we received the Torah. How do I know this? Because Jews today, and as did the people of Vystrani the book tell us, stay up all night before the holiday studying.

So what's going on here? Am I getting a glimpse into a trick fantasy writer's use? Need a religion, grab one that most of your readers don't know about it and pass it off as invented. Or maybe Brennan is Jewish or has a biblical studies background and wanted to embellish A Natural History with this knoweledge. There's even the slight possibility that Brennan is making fun of Jews, after all her biblical Judaism is the religion of choice for a group superstitious country bumpkins. Though I think I'm being too harsh with that suggestion. There's just too many references to Jewish concepts for this to be a coincidence.

It turns out, it's most certainly not a coincidence. First, my thanks go out to the Velveteen Rabbi who had observations similar to mine. She picked up on another dimension I hadn't fully appreciated. She suggests that both the Vystrani and Lady Trent's homeland both practice Judaism, it's just that the Vystrani practice the sacrificial kind while Lady Trent and her neighbros follow the study-based variety Jews practice today. I'd seen hints to this, but didn't make the full connection. More importantly, the Velveteen Rabbi pointed me to this post from Brennan herself where she explains her decision to use Judaism as the religion of of choice in the story.

But when I came back to the project several years later, I found myself looking at that word and frowning. There’s a Middle Eastern analogue in the setting, too, so I’d been pondering what sort of religious history the region should have, and then out of nowhere I asked myself: why make the dominant “European” religion pseudo-Christianity? Why not pseudo-Judaism instead?

The anthropologist in me immediately started raising a cautionary hand. Cultural elements aren’t modular; you can’t just plug them in wherever you like without affecting other things. Then again, it isn’t like I was trying to plug in Hinduism or Shinto; Christianity and Judaism have much more in common with one another. The bigger issue, I realized, was that I didn’t really have a model for Judaism in the role I envisioned. The rabbinic form of the religion was not, until the modern establishment of Israel, a dominant and state-backed faith; it’s deeply shaped by the Jewish diaspora and the persecution that brought. There was a state version of the religion, but that was localized and ended two thousand years ago, with the destruction of the Second Temple. It never covered an entire continent, nor did it deal with the social and technological changes of the intervening history.

Thinking about those two forms called up echoes of the Protestant/Catholic divide in my mind. The bigger issue, I realized, was that I didn’t really have a model for Judaism in the role I envisioned. The rabbinic form of the religion was not, until the modern establishment of Israel, a dominant and state-backed faith; it’s deeply shaped by the Jewish diaspora and the persecution that brought. There was a state version of the religion, but that was localized and ended two thousand years ago, with the destruction of the Second Temple. It never covered an entire continent, nor did it deal with the social and technological changes of the intervening history. ...

What if I incorporated both versions of Judaism into my setting? One would be Temple-based, a centralized faith taking its lead from a high priest back in the original homeland. The other would be modeled on rabbinic Judaism, with many teachers and sects in different places. Fantasy tends to have only One True Version of any given religion, so I really liked the idea of mixing things up a bit. I consulted a friend who studies Judaism and worked out the “evolution” of both forms, adapting them to the context of my world, and went back to work on the story, which had suddenly come to life in new ways.

You’ll never see the word “Judaism” in the novel, of course, nor any other widely recognizable terminology associated with it (e.g. “rabbi”). Since what’s in my story is based on Judaism, rather than being the religion itself, I decided to take the same approach to my word choice. There are magisters instead of rabbis, assembly-houses instead of synagogues, the Feast of the Reception rather than Shavuot. But readers familiar with the subject will notice that “synagogue” comes from the Greek word for “assembly,” and Shavuot commemorates the day God gave the Torah to the people of Israel: I’m still talking about the same things, just in a slightly altered guise. There are other details along the way, drawn from both forms of Judaism, sometimes tweaked to a bit of an angle, which make it clear what I’m talking about, even if it never gets a familiar name.

And some readers, at least, are noticing. I knew it would fly under the radar of many people; if you’re not personally conversant with Judaism, it can be easy to overlook the hints. (Many of them are things I wouldn’t have noticed, before I began researching this for the book.) But I’ve seen reviews and gotten e-mails that mention this thread, and every one of them makes me happy.

Wow. Her selection of Judiasm was the opposite of the short-cut I naively suggested above. The thought experiment that she's done to imagine a Victorian world where both Rabbinic and Priestly Jews co-exist is remarkable and inspired. And she did all this to add detail that most of her readers wouldn't detect. Brennan is taking her world-building to the next level with this sort of nuance, and as a Jew I can't help but marvel at here dedication and creativity.

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