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In the Labyrinth of Drakes by Marie Brennan

In the Labyrinth of Drakes by Marie BrennanIn the Labyrinth of Drakes (The Memoirs of Lady Trent #4) by Marie Brennan
Series: The Memoirs of Lady Trent #4
Published by Tor Books on April 5th 2016
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 352
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads
five-stars

The thrilling new book in the acclaimed fantasy series from Marie Brennan, as the glamorous Lady Trent takes her adventurous explorations to the deserts of Akhia.

Even those who take no interest in the field of dragon naturalism have heard of Lady Trent's expedition to the inhospitable deserts of Akhia. Her discoveries there are the stuff of romantic legend, catapulting her from scholarly obscurity to worldwide fame. The details of her personal life during that time are hardly less private, having provided fodder for gossips in several countries.

As is so often the case in the career of this illustrious woman, the public story is far from complete. In this, the fourth volume of her memoirs, Lady Trent relates how she acquired her position with the Royal Scirling Army; how foreign saboteurs imperiled both her work and her well-being; and how her determined pursuit of knowledge took her into the deepest reaches of the Labyrinth of Drakes, where the chance action of a dragon set the stage for her greatest achievement yet.

I am caught up to the final book, which won’t be released until the 25th.

I adored this book. As far as my enjoyment goes, the pacing of this series has been remarkably effective. Although the tale is being told as a memoir, Marie Brennan has done an outstanding job letting the intellectual development of Isabella unfold. We get some of the most frankly feminist moments in this book. Lady Trent, at this point, is a woman with no fucks left to give about propriety. She has learned, in the hardest way possible, that it does not matter how amazing she is, how accomplished she is, how much BETTER she is than the man. Her womanhood forever excludes her from being part of the old boy’s club.

I highly recommend reading Brennan’s free short story, available on Tor, before jumping into this one. It is a slender thing of a tale, told in letters, between Isabella and a man who is so clearly her inferior in all things important, but who is just so smug about his superiority.

The tagline for this book could be: “Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white male.”

I’m going to share a few quotes here, because they are so awesome.

“Shall we get to the point? You are afraid that I will disgrace Scirland by carrying on with an unmarried man.”

“I would never suggest that.”

No, he would only imply it. I ground my teeth, then said “Colonel, do you make a habit of querying your men about their involvement with every woman they meet? I assure you that many if not most of them have done far more to merit censure than I have. I know it may be difficult to believe, but dragons truly are my concern here. I have not undertaken their study in the hope of attracting a new husband; indeed, such a thing would be an inconvenience rather than a benefit, as there are few husbands who would accept my life as I have become accustomed to living it. As for scandal outside the bounds of marriage…that would be even more inconvenient, as people question my professional integrity quite enough without such justification to encourage them. So you may lay your mind at ease, sir: I have no intention of disgracing our nation. Not when there are dragons to be studied.”

This is a conversation between Isabella and the Colonel Pensyth, who is basically in charge of her new research project, which is an effort to breed dragons in captivity for use in military combat.

In this book, Brennan has laid bare the struggle of women to be taken seriously in their chosen field, both in the past, but as well, in the present. In a conversation with Isabella’s older brother, Andrew, they are discussing her undeniable attraction to Suhail, who reappears in this book. Andrew is commenting that Isabella need not choose between her attraction to Suhail and her work as a dragonologist. Isabella corrects him:

I felt weary, as if I were ten years older than my brother, instead of a year his junior. “Yes, it doe. You and I are not held to the same standards, Andrew. People will forgive a slip, a weakness, a minor personal folly — when it comes from a man. They may click their tongues at you, even gossip about your behavior…but at worst, it will only reflect on you.

“If I misstep, it goes far beyond me. Errors on my part are proof that women are unsuited to professional work.”

And, when Andrew goes on to point out that Isabella is “not like other women,” she pointedly states:

“Ah, yes,” I said ironically, “I have made myself exceptional. It is a wonderful game, is it not? Because I am exceptional, anything I achieve does not reflect on my sex, for of course, I am not like them. Strange, though, how that division seems to vanish when we are speaking instead of my shortcomings. Then I am a woman, like any other.”

One of the things that I’ve really loved about this series is Isabella’s platonic relationship with Tom Wilker. As fellow scientists, they both carry a stigma. Tom is low-born, not one of the peers who are encouraged to take up science as a hobby, and who are given opportunity after opportunity on the strength of their ancestry, as opposed to their talent or work ethic. Isabella, of course, is a woman. Tom’s lot is, actually, not so difficult as Isabella’s, although he certainly doesn’t have it easy. But even though he has to scrap and struggle, he considers Isabella to be his colleague, and there is never a suggestion by him, although Isabella does suggest it once or twice, that he take credit for her work in order to get it published. He is intent on pulling the two of them up together, and if she can’t go too, he isn’t interested.

So, when they make the scientific discovery of a generation, Isabella, Tom and Suhail (another character who defies the path laid for him by birth and sex), I literally cheered. I almost wept. Never has this book and these characters felt more real to me than in the section where they discover the “Watcher’s Heart,” as the site became known, a monumental archeological treasure of the Draconean civilization.

Near the end of the book, Tom bursts out, angrily:

“We have to achieve twice as much, in order to get half as much reward.”

There was no answer I could make to that. It was true…but neither of us could do a thing about it. Except, of course, to achieve four times as much. To be so exceptional, they could no longer shut us out, and having done that, to hope that those who came after might be judged on equal terms with those who should be their peers.

It is not a dream easily attained. We have no truly attained it in my lifetime. But I was more determined than ever to do my part.”

In The Labyrinth of Drakes is an exceptional book, which I loved. Brennan has built this series into something amazing, each book frankly becoming better than the last, which is a rare thing in series, in my experience. I am waiting for the end of the series with delight.

five-stars

The Voyage of the Basilisk by Marie Brennan

The Voyage of the Basilisk by Marie BrennanVoyage of the Basilisk (The Memoirs of Lady Trent #3) by Marie Brennan
Published by Tor Books on March 31st 2015
Pages: 352
Goodreads
five-stars

Devoted readers of Lady Trent’s earlier memoirs, A Natural History of Dragons and The Tropic of Serpents, may believe themselves already acquainted with the particulars of her historic voyage aboard the Royal Survey Ship Basilisk, but the true story of that illuminating, harrowing, and scandalous journey has never been revealed—until now. Six years after her perilous exploits in Eriga, Isabella embarks on her most ambitious expedition yet: a two-year trip around the world to study all manner of dragons in every place they might be found. From feathered serpents sunning themselves in the ruins of a fallen civilization to the mighty sea serpents of the tropics, these creatures are a source of both endless fascination and frequent peril. Accompanying her is not only her young son, Jake, but a chivalrous foreign archaeologist whose interests converge with Isabella’s in ways both professional and personal.

Science is, of course, the primary objective of the voyage, but Isabella’s life is rarely so simple. She must cope with storms, shipwrecks, intrigue, and warfare, even as she makes a discovery that offers a revolutionary new insight into the ancient history of dragons

I had been awaiting this one with enthusiasm because Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle has always enthralled me. I’m not particularly a ship/boat person, but the idea of a scientist travelling ’round the world studying the natural world is extremely appealing to me. So, this book would be, I hoped, the opportunity to read of such a fictional voyage.

A cross-section view of the hold of The Beagle

It was quite a satisfying tale, although there wasn’t quite as much travelling as I had hoped. Natalie doesn’t join her on this trip, although her son, now nine-years-old, does, and becomes entirely obsessed with ships.

Lady Trent has the opportunity to swim with the dragon turtles!

But I did not need to be a champion swimmer to see the dragon turtles, for they are both huge and relatively fearless of human company. In shape they are more like enormous turtles than anything else. Their shell alone is often two meters or more in length, and when they extend their flippers, a swimmer feels positively tiny in comparison. The name “dragon turtle,” however, derives from the shape of the head, which is indeed like that of a Dajin dragon: a thrusting, squarish muzzle; flaps of skin depending from the jaw; long whiskers which dance in the current as the turtle swims.

And she visits an island where she ends up becoming embroiled in a political scandal, after scaring the natives who are convinced that she is “dragon-spirited” because her refusal to behave in a traditionally feminine manner. There’s a rather amusing part of the book where she ends up “married” to a local woman because that’s the only way to satisfy the native population that she’s safe to keep around.

“Do you believe you are neither male nor female?”

I almost gave a malapert answer, but caught myself in time. We had an established habit of intellectual debate, and I valued it; I would not discard it now. “So long as my society refuses to admit of a concept of femininity that allows for such things,” I said, “then one could indeed say that I stand between.”

Finally, Lady Trent rides a dragon. Well, a sea serpent who is a dragon, but still.

Whereupon I realized that we were, indeed, riding a dragon. I cannot honestly recommend the practice to my readers. Apart from the number of Keongans who have been killed attempting this very feat, it is not very comfortable. The ragged cuts on my knees and elbows stung unmercifully. Every time the serpent dove, I was buffeted by the water until it realized the error of its ways and surfaced once more. Again and again it drew in water and expelled it in a blast, for that was its defense against what troubled it, and the beast’s mind could not encompass the fact that this annoyance could not be disposed of in such fashion; but it came near to working regardless, for the shuddering of the serpent’s body whenever this happened threatened to dislodge us. There was no moment of the entire experience that was not a precarious struggle to stay aboard. And yet for all of that, it was one of the grandest experiences of my life.

At this point in the book, she becomes embroiled – once again – in a royal Scirling government scandal, and is basically sent home subject to the official secrets act after saving the life of a grateful Princess. I should probably also mention Suhail, a foreign archaeologist from a vaguely middle eastern country, with whom Isabella is quite taken, and from whom she is abruptly separated at the end of this book when his father, the Sheikh, dies unexpectedly and he is called home. All in all, this was an incredibly satisfying outing in the series, and I’m looking forward to the fourth book, In The Labyrinth of Drakes.

five-stars

The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan

The Tropic of Serpents by Marie BrennanThe Tropic of Serpents (The Memoirs of Lady Trent #2) by Marie Brennan
Series: The Memoirs of Lady Trent #2
Published by Tor Books on March 4th 2014
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 331
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads

The thrilling adventure of Lady Trent continues in Marie Brennan's The Tropic of Serpents . . .

Attentive readers of Lady Trent’s earlier memoir, A Natural History of Dragons, are already familiar with how a bookish and determined young woman named Isabella first set out on the historic course that would one day lead her to becoming the world’s premier dragon naturalist. Now, in this remarkably candid second volume, Lady Trent looks back at the next stage of her illustrious (and occasionally scandalous) career.

Three years after her fateful journeys through the forbidding mountains of Vystrana, Mrs. Camherst defies family and convention to embark on an expedition to the war-torn continent of Eriga, home of such exotic draconian species as the grass-dwelling snakes of the savannah, arboreal tree snakes, and, most elusive of all, the legendary swamp-wyrms of the tropics.

The expedition is not an easy one. Accompanied by both an old associate and a runaway heiress, Isabella must brave oppressive heat, merciless fevers, palace intrigues, gossip, and other hazards in order to satisfy her boundless fascination with all things draconian, even if it means venturing deep into the forbidden jungle known as the Green Hell . . . where her courage, resourcefulness, and scientific curiosity will be tested as never before.

This was the third time I’ve read this book, and each time I like it a little bit more. I reread it in preparation for the third book, The Voyage of the Basilisk, because for some reason, I haven’t kept current on this series, in spite of the fact that it is one of my favorites on the strength of the first two books. Books 3 & 4 have been released, and the final book in the series, Within the Sanctuary of Wings, is scheduled for release on April 25.

In terms of the the plot, if you plan to read this series, and you haven’t finished book 1, it’s really impossible to discuss this book without spoiling two significant changes in Isabella’s life. When we left her at the end of book 1, she had just returned from Vystrana, after undertaking her first voyage of discovery as a “naturalist.” She returns, not as a wife, but as a widow, Brennan having conveniently disposed of Jacob, her husband. She also returns pregnant. The Tropic of Serpents picks up three years later, after Isabella’s son is born, as she begins to hunger for dragon-based adventures and discovery once again.

This series is actually more about women in science and in public life than it is about dragons. Dragons are the fiction around which Brennan builds her society, which is modeled on our own, late 19th century, world. Isabella’s scientific aptitude, her ambitious, intrepid nature and her unwillingness to be relegated to a traditional female role is the true north of the series. Everything else is an exploration of this – from her unfeminine interest in dragons (as opposed to more socially acceptable interests like horses or dogs) to her lack of interest in maternal things (which is acceptable in ladies only when their interest is diverted by frivolities, like dresses and gossip). Isabella is a deeply substantive woman, in a culture that doesn’t really know what to do with substantive women. And, aside from Lord Hilford, who manages to see her as a fully-realized human being and more than simply a walking womb, the men who surround her really have no idea what to do with her. She is changing the men she encounters as much as she is changing herself.

Reading that Mike Pence refuses to consume a meal alone with a woman peer immediately after reading this book is a disheartening reminder that, while we’ve come a long way baby, we apparently haven’t come far enough, and that there are still plenty of 21st century men who seem to be unable to view women as anything other than an ambulatory, speech-capable vagina.

On this outing, Isabella heads to the fictional Eriga, which seems to be somewhere in Africa, and gets involved in local politics. She manages to muddle about, immerse herself in the local (native) culture, and accomplish a feat of great environmental conservation all the while coping with a culture that is just as skeptical of women who act like men as her own. She plunges headlong into the swamp known as the Green Hell, and learns to fly, both literally and figuratively. We also meet Natalie, another young woman who is entirely disinterested in a typical female life, and I hope to learn more about Natalie in later books.

I am very excited for the Voyage of the Basilisks, as it sounds very much like the trip that Charles Darwin took on the The Beagle, a voyage that has captured my imagination since the moment I heard about it.

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan

A Natural History of Dragons by Marie BrennanA Natural History of Dragons (The Memoirs of Lady Trent #1) by Marie Brennan
Series: The Memoirs of Lady Trent #1
Published by Tor Books on February 5th 2013
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 334
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads

Everyone knows Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world's preeminent dragon naturalist. Here, at last, in her own words, is the story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, prospects, and her life to satisfy scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the mountains of Vystrana, where she made discoveries that would change the world.

As part of my Once Upon A Time springtime festival, I decided to finish the Lady Trent series. This has been a favorite series of mine, although I fell behind after the second book. The fifth and final book in the series, Within the Sanctuary of Wings, will be released on April 25, which gives me the opportunity to basically read the series right through in the next month.

I started Once Upon A Time by rereading the first book and reacquainting myself with Isabella. A Natural History of Dragons covers Isabella’s childhood and her early obsession with dragons. It is told in retrospect, by Lady Trent as an elderly woman looking back over her life – this one represents the first in her series of memoirs. By the time she is writing this book, she is a grande dame of society, no longer subject to its strictures by dint of her accomplishments.

Brennan does a fine job establishing Isabella’s character as a child who is deeply attracted to biology, to dissection, to “natural history,” which is really the Victorian name for “biology” at a time when society frowned upon girls being interested in intellectual pursuits. While she has constructed an entirely fantasy world, it is firmly based in the history of this one, with Scirling as a stand-in for Britain, with all of the shibboleths of Victorian culture.

One of the complaints that I read in other reviews of this series was that it was slow-moving, and that there weren’t enough dragons. I understand that criticism. If the reader is looking for a series like Eragon, or even Temeraire, where there is dragon/human interaction and overt magical intrusion, this is not that series. Essentially, Brennan has taken a character like Freya Stark or Isabella Bird and transplanted her into a world where dragons are real. This book shares much more with Charles Darwin than it does with Harry Potter.

This first book in the series also describes Isabella’s first adventure to Vystrana, which is Eastern European in custom and description – a place like Hungary or the Czech Republic. Isabella is really hitting her stride during this expedition and maintains her adherence to many of the upper class customs and niceties of Scirling. She is under the protection of her husband, Jacob, and they are newly married, their explorations thus being both draconic and connubial. Isabella is not an easy wife, and Jacob is uneasy in his decisions. As was the case during that era, Isabella went directly from the protection of her father to the protection of her husband, and her unwillingness to be so limited is evident in both of those relationships.

I don’t want to spoiler too much, so I’m not going to say more in this review. Once I get to book 2, the major spoiler of this book will be revealed, but for now, I will leave it at this. This was a 4-star read for me.

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