Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve loved to be out in nature. Whether I’m hiking, sketching trees, observing frog spawn, or just relaxing to the sounds of birds and running water, it never fails to inspire my imagination. In fact, the ideas for several of my stories came to me while trekking through the forest, and many of my characters have something of a naturalist in them as well, including Kendra, the hero of my story “A Whole-Hearted Halfing” in the Champions of Aetaltis anthology. From Doctor Dolittle to Newt Scamander, fantasy fiction is full of naturalists and those fascinated by the creatures and plants of the world around them.
Here is a list of five of my favorite books that appeal to my inner naturalist.
A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan
This novel is told in the style of a Victorian memoir from the point of Isabella, Lady Trent, the world’s foremost authority on dragons. The style is quaint but it is by no means paced like a true Victorian book. Readers will love accompanying Isabella as she makes discoveries about both the natural world and herself. It’s a book full of thrills—Lady Trent’s enthusiasm and passion for learning about dragons is contagious, and the reader can’t help but go along with her on her expeditions.
The Flight of Dragons by Peter Dickinson, Illustrated by Wayne Anderson
I’m lucky enough to have a first edition copy of this now out of print (but still attainable) tome by the late Peter Dickinson. The purpose of this book is simple: to prove that dragons did indeed exist. Drawing on mythology, folk tales, and anecdotes, Dickinson creates a pretty convincing thesis. With the help of gorgeous illustrations, he explains why dragons hoard gold, how they fly and breathe fire, what their life cycle is like, and the intricacies of dragon speech. The Rankin/Bass animated movie Flight of Dragons is based on this book.
The Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer
This trilogy (which can also be found in a gorgeous one volume hardcover book) follows a group of scientists as they study a place called Area X from both inside and out. This piece of land has been cut off from the outside world and is studied by a secret government agency called Southern Reach. Every group that has gone to Area X, save the first, has met with pretty horrid fates, and those that returned always have more questions than answers. Something about this pristine natural place, which seems to have wiped away the traces of human civilization that was once there. VanderMeer’s work in this trilogy is nothing short of amazing. Not only is the natural world in these books developed enough to where Area X could be a character in its own right, but there is enough paranoia, unanswered questions, and even some heavy emotions to keep the reader’s heart pounding to the end.
The Book of Barely Imagined Beings by Caspar Henderson
The creatures in this book are amazing, mysterious, puzzling … and all very real. Inspired by the medieval bestiaries and books of imagined beings, this book is arranged in alphabetical order, and includes old style illustrations as well as modern photographs of creatures. It’s a celebration of the weird and wonderful creatures of nature, many of which have become very rare. Unlike other nonfiction natural history books, Henderson keeps his book very readable yet still informative, filled with wit, inspiration, and yes, even magic.
The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf
As I read this book, I felt like I was journeying around the world with Humbolt, climbing mountains and volcanoes, making connections between previously unrelated things, inventing new tools to aid in the study of nature, and scratching the brains of his contemporaries, Jefferson, Goethe, Schiller, and Bolivar. It’s no wonder such a man inspired people like Darwin, Thoreau, and Muir. Reading this book hardly felt like a biography. I felt like I was in an adventure novel full of war and dangerous creatures, illnesses, and harrowing journeys. Humbolt had a revolutionary vision of nature that changed the world and still inspires millions to this day. After reading even a couple chapters of this book, readers will not wonder why.
Melanie R. Meadors is the author of fantasy and science fiction stories where heroes don’t always carry swords and knights in shining armor often lose to nerds who study their weaknesses. Her work has been published in Circle Magazine, The Wheel, and Prick of the Spindle, and she was a finalist in the 2014 Jim Baen Memorial Science Fiction Contest. Melanie is also a freelance author publicist and publicity/marketing coordinator for both Ragnarok Publications and Mechanical Muse. She blogs regularly for GeekMom and The Once and Future Podcast. Her short story “A Whole-Hearted Halfling” is in the anthology Champions of Aetaltis.