Marie Brennan's A Natural History of Dragons is a novel disguised as a memoir from protagonist Isabella, a naturalist and adventurer out to prove her worth. Inside the book are beautiful illustrations from Todd Lockwood. For Tip Sheet, Brennan talked about the art of the book and how it tied into her narrative.
One of my favorite things about this book is the decision to include sketches throughout, as examples of the pictures drawn by my protagonist, Isabella. Todd Lockwood’s art for Dungeons & Dragons was one of the inspirations for the novel itself, so having him illustrate my work was more or less a dream come true. I’d happily discuss all ten interior images, but as some of them would be spoilers, I’ll limit myself to the cover and five from inside.
This is what winning the cover lottery looks like.
I had the notion of a line drawing, showing the structure of a dragon’s wing. My editor had the idea of imitating the Signet edition of The Origin of Species, with lifelike drawings on a cream background. Combine those two ideas, hand it over to Todd Lockwood, and this is what you get. I think it’s absolutely amazing: simple, eye-catching, and a perfect advertisement for the book.
The image itself is a Vystrani rock-wyrm, the breed of dragon this first volume focuses on. They live in mountain caves -- very classically draconic, in that way -- which, along with their stony-looking grey hides, is what gives them their name. They don’t breathe fire, though; their “extraordinary breath” (to give it the scientific name) is a hail of ice particles, the chill of which slows their prey enough for them to capture it.
In order to give Isabella enough to study for a whole series, I had to come up with a variety of different draconic breeds, each adapted to a particular environment. But dragons are big, complicated predators, and I can’t fit them into every corner of the story. So I came up with the notion of “draconic cousins” -- creatures that look sort of dragon-ish, but are not considered by the natural historians of Isabella’s world to be “true dragons,” according to scientific criteria.
Wolf-drakes were one of the first “cousins” I thought up. They can’t fly, nor do they breathe anything other than the same air as the rest of us, but they’ve got the scales and the tail and the snout, and they eat livestock. One of them also very nearly eats Isabella . . . but that’s a story I’ll leave for the book itself.
While I’m sure many readers would be happy with interior art that is wall-to-wall dragons, I wanted to use the opportunity to explore Isabella’s world with images as well as descriptions. This is a sketch of the village she and her companions live in during their Vystrani expedition; the taller house in the background is the one they use as their home base.
Vystrana is inspired by Central and Eastern Europe, the Carpathian Mountains of Romania in particular. Apart from my research reading, I corresponded briefly with one of my blog readers, asking what he would expect to see in a setting based on that region, and he said there should be geese in the front yards. This is the sort of detail that research reading almost never gives you, and I duly passed it along for the art.
But enough of the setting! Time to get back to the dragons. I very much wanted to have an image like this, which not only gives another view of a rock-wyrm (a dead one this time), but includes insets showing anatomical details. Isabella accompanies the Vystrani expedition because of her artistic abilities; at that point in history there are very few accurate pictures of dragons, and they need someone who can draw their subjects to a scientific standard.
I left most of the specifics up to Todd, since he knows anatomy far better than I do. I did ask for a claw, a wing joint, and a cross-section of hollow bone, but didn’t attempt to detail what those should look like. In fact, I left the anatomy of the wing up to him, asking only that it be distinct from a bird or a bat wing -- and then went back and revised the text to match what he had drawn!
When I was first developing the idea for this series, I made a list of pulp adventure tropes, and then considered how I could incorporate them into my story. One of the first items of the list was “ancient ruins!” (Yes, with an exclamation mark.) I’m an archaeologist by training, so the notion of a mysterious, half-forgotten civilization, a la Atlantis, is like catnip to me.
As some readers may recognize, Egypt was a big influence on my mental image of Draconean ruins. That striding pose is a common motif found in statues of pharoahs, and there are other architectural elements like pylons and hypostyle halls that appear in Draconean sites all over Isabella’s world. This particular set of ruins is not the grandest -- I’m saving those for later in the series -- but it’s the first that she has ever visited, and several parts of the novel take place there.
One of my central concerns with the art for this series was that the dragons look as realistic as possible. (I love an improbable fantasy dragon as much as the next reader, but if my protagonist is going to be studying them scientifically, as part of the natural world, it helps if they seem like something that could exist in nature.) I therefore asked Todd for mechanically plausible joints, no gratuitous spikes, etc.
For this picture, however, I told him to throw that entire request out the window. Zhagrit Mat is a legend in Vystrana, an ancient king cursed into a half-dragon, half-human form; he’s a supernatural thing, not remotely scientific. I invited Todd to draw the most outrageous monstrosity he felt inclined to. Gratuitous spikes ahoy!