In the Labyrinth of Drakes, by Marie Brennan

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 5, 2016

Summary: In the Labyrinth of Drakes: 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.

Review: The fourth book in the series of memoirs by the fictional Lady Trent, we are once again whisked off to a new corner of a fantasy world as she embarks upon yet another journey to deepen the scientific understanding of dragons. This time, though, there is a reason beyond mere scientific exploration that is driving her actions, or at least there is on the surface. While Isabella and Tom’s interest is primarily that of general discovery, the nation of Scirland wishes to fund their expedition to Akhia in order to uncover the secrets of dragon breeding, so that they might use dragons as tools of war.

Akhia is a place based largely upon the Middle East, and similar to the other locations in previous books, Brennan has done a pretty good job of not dipping into the well of stereotypes in order to build society. That isn’t to say that Akhia is a place where gender segregation doesn’t happens, doesn’t have nomadic desert tribes, or doesn’t have a mix of religions that correspond extremely well to Islam and Judaism. But Brennan is respectful in her treatment of culture, presenting things from the viewpoint of the outsider who isn’t there to pass judgment on culture but to study creatures native to the area. Is it wholly accurate, with the exception of names? I couldn’t say for certain. But it is respectful.

Were it just a matter of uncovering the secret to getting dragons to breed and thrive in captivity, In the Labyrinth of Drakes would be an interesting enough novel. But as in other books, things get more complicated and, of course, more political. As things tend to do when war is approaching. Isabella’s primary interest is in figuring things out, but her government, and thus Akhia due to the political arrangements made, wants her emphasis to be on breeding. And true to form for people who don’t quite understand the intricacies of scientific discovery, the people by whose graces she is even in Akhia want faster results than she can give. Someone is out to sabotage the project, by killing her and Tom if they must. The project faces difficulties, as before they arrived, someone else headed the project and the dragons were ill treated.

But the true discoveries come when Isabella gets her chance to visit the fabled Labyrinth of Drakes…

I have to admit, one of the things I love about this book is something I loved in previous books: that Isabella and Tom do not hook up. For all that it’s often said that of course a man and a woman can be friends without their relationship getting romantic or sexual, even for a time, very rarely do I see that portrayed in fiction. If a woman has a close male friend of colleague, chances are they’re going to be involved in a love triangle, or at least some unresolved sexual tension. But throughout the series, their relationship stays cordial, that of friends and colleagues and equals who are discovering the secrets of the world together, and neither of them express even a fleeting interest in each other or wonder about getting together. And while early in the series you could claim that’s due to Isabella being married or mourning the death of her husband, that argument breaks down as years go by and characters develop. And as Suhail is introduced. But I will forever love that Isabella and Tom can stay friends when in-book there’s scandal and rumour about them already, and in literary context that just so rarely happens.

And where romance is concerned, I seriously love the connection between Isabella and Suhail. I won’t go into detail here, to avoid spoilers, but suffice it to say that if you liked seeing their friendship develop in Voyage of the Basilisk, you’re going to appreciate what happens in In the Labyrinth of Drakes. It’s wonderfully done, and I’m a big fan of how it all came together for them in the end.

If there’s anything I particularly disliked about this book, though, it’s that it felt rather unfinished. It ends with them making a huge discovery in the Labyrinth of Drakes, breakthroughs about the ancient Draconean society, which is understandably great and it was glued to the book as the team made their explorations, but there were so many unanswered questions by the end. Why the breeding project was ultimately cancelled. Whether war is actually upon them? So much of the book was about the breeding project, regardless of its ultimate purpose, so to have it end at the discovery in the Labyrinth of Drakes felt like part of the story went unwritten, and it was a bit of a let-down.

Not an inappropriate one, contextually, since the books are written with the assumption that you want to know more about Lady Trent’s discoveries and contributions to science, and the main discovery of that time was in regard to Draconean society. So I understand that was an appropriate place to leave off the story, all things considered. But it still wasn’t really satisfying, and was possibly the least satisfying ending of the series thus far.

But all things considered, even if I wasn’t overly fond of how it ended, I still loved the book, in the same way that I loved the rest of the series. Something I heard a long time ago stuck with me, in that an old friend declared they didn’t like fantasy because fantasy “had no rules.” Dragons couldn’t really exist and fly and breathe fire the way they do in stories, magic is done arbitrarily and has no guidelines, etc. To which I always said that person couldn’t have read much fantasy, since even at the time I’d read plenty of books that set down rules for magic and attempted to explain various fantastical creatures. But never before this series had I seen one attempt to do so with such appeal to science, the tedium of watching and making notes and doing small experiments and making more notes, and actually attempting to bring what we see today as good hard science to a fantasy world. It’s an uncommon series, one that stands out because of its natural science approach, and one that takes readers on great journeys to far-flung fictional countries that so resemble pieces of our own world’s history and cultures and does it all in a way that can’t really be argued with. It’s all observation, all the tedium of watching and making notes, but exciting and thrilling, with all the associated joy of making a breakthrough and shifting how you understand the world around you. It’s just so incredibly well done.

Long story short, if you enjoyed the previous books in the series, you’re going to enjoy In the Labyrinth of Drakes just as much. It has everything I’ve come to expect from the series, Isabella’s wonderful wit and commentary, the thrill of discovery, and all set in a world that’s familiar and new at the same time. It’s a series that I don’t want to see end, because I always get the feeling that new discoveries are just around the corner, and I want to be right by Isabella’s side as she changes the world.

Voyage of the Basilisk, by Marie Brennan

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 31, 2015

Summary: 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.

Thoughts: There’s something about this series that I don’t think will ever cease to thrill me. I suspect it comes down to the idea that a sufficiently curious child can walk out their front door, become fascinated with something in the natural world, and then go on to make great discoveries in that field. The idea that there’s still so much to learn about the world and that it can be learned with no more than a discerning eye, a mind for speculation, and the power of observation. I don’t want to imply that we’ve learned everything there is about the world we live in now; far from it. But it’s different now. Science marches ever onward, and where Isabella’s methods may involve comparing samples of scales obtained from locals, we would now put everything under a microscope and dissect it in minute detail. We’re no longer in a time where scientists can be followed like celebrities.

It makes me regret that this kind of time has passed, while simultaneously being glad that it did, because we know so much more than we did then.

And either way, this world has no dragons.

Voyage of the Basilisk takes place a number of years after The Tropic of Serpents, and details Isabella’s time aboard the ship called Basilisk, and she travels around the world in search of more information about dragons. Joining her are Tom, her son Jake, and Jake’s governess, and though you’d think it would be Tom who ends up side-by-side with Isabella in the discoveries she makes, it’s actually more often her son and a newcomer to the group, Suhail, who are with her in making the most significant discoveries. Add to it the usual political dance that accompanies any trip abroad, especially at a time where countries are very much bound by their borders and the idea of a global society has yet to take hold, and it all combines into an amazing scientific adventure.

It was interesting to see Jake take such a strong role in this book, since Isabella has, in the past, denied that she has much in the way of maternal instincts. Whether that’s true or not (it’s definitely possible to be a good parent without having the best instinct for it), Jake is finally old enough to be able to come along with her on her trips, getting to spend time with his mother at last and to go on display to readers of Isabella’s story (which, as with the other two books in the series, is written in the style of a memoir). Rather than just being a tag-along, he spurs Isabella into doing things she might not otherwise have attempted a few times, not all of which led to an advancement of the plot but at least provided inspiration later on. And, of course, at other times she was forced to curtail her activities for his sake. He was an active influence, rather than a passive one, and I’m curious to see if he shows up in any future installments of the series.

It’s a bit disappointing that the more exciting parts of the story didn’t really get going for quite a while. Most of the real interest takes place on Keonga, and the ship doesn’t even get there until the book’s about half over. The early scenes were important for setup, such as Isabella first encountering sea serpents, and her time in Va Hing, but they did leave the story feeling a bit without direction. Adrift at sea.

I do love how this Brennan uses the primary world as brilliant inspiration for Isabella’s world. Most authors do this, of course, but with Isabella’s globe-spanning explorations, you can practically superimpose a map of this world over hers and probably not be far off the mark. This is especially clear in the linguistic sense. Yelang was an analogue for China (not just some vague conglomerate of east-Asian stereotypes), and though it wasn’t expressed directly, knowing what little I do of Mandarin made it easy to figure that whenever a Yelangese term for a dragon was mentioned, leng was part of the phrase that meant, specifically, dragon. I want to say that Keonga was the analogue for Hawai’i, mostly based on the structure of names mentioned, but I’m not that familiar with Hawai’ian history and culture that I can be certain of it. Brennan works wonders with language and anthropology and biology, and it’s such a treat to read, encompassing about 90% of my own academic interests into one outstanding work of fantasy.

Voyage of the Basilisk, and the books that came before it, show themselves to be unique and intelligent novels, standing tall amid other offerings on the bookshelves. You can’t help but be filled with a sense of wonder and adventure when reading them, hearkening back to childhood memories when every new day was a discovery, and the whole world was yours to explore. Brennan captures that feeling with masterful skill, gives us a new world to dip our toes into — just watch out for sea serpents! — and leaves us with characters and stories who inspire and educate and delight, all in one. It blends historical fantasy and straight-up secondary world fantasy into one seamless whole. I enjoyed Voyage of the Basilisk as much as A Natural History of Dragons, each book as strong as the one before it, and I know this is a series that I’m going to return to more than once. Any series with reread value is a good series!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Tropic of Serpents, by Marie Brennan

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 4, 2014

Summary: 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.

Thoughts: Previously, I was enamoured with the first book in this series, A Natural History of Dragons, which caught my attention for taking place in a world like ours (albeit ours about 100 years back, and with dragons), and for being the fictional memoir of a woman who disliked the role that society had decided for her based on her gender and decided instead she’d be an adventurer-scientist and make a proper study of dragons instead of just sitting there and being a good pretty housewife. Isabella was a wonderful narrator, and I went into The Tropic of Serpents expecting more of the same. I clearly was not disappointed.

Readers of the previous novel will understand why her husband is no longer around, so I won’t go into details of how sad that sill makes me, because I really enjoyed seeing them as a wonderful pair of partners, not just in marriage but also in science. Here, Isabella has a young son whom she’s not quite sure what to do with, a friend and protegé who accompanies her on her journey to the strange new lands of Eriga, and, as before, still must deal with social gender norms, albeit slightly different ones than she’s used to as she encounters unfamiliar cultures and comes to a greater understanding of them.

You can’t read this book without a sense of wonder, the kind that accompanies great stories of adventure and exploration and discovery, and there’s enough of the familiar in this series to make readers feel as though they could be reading a memoir from our own history. Which is exactly its point; it’s written as though it’s a real memoir, complete with commentary on various issues, first-person viewpoint, and Isabella’s lack of immunity from her own criticism. Exactly as one tends to do when they’re writing about an event in hindsight. Brennan also pulls more inspiration from the primary world to build her secondary world, drawing up cultures and societies analogous to ones that exist here, adding another layer of realism to an already beautifully designed story.

Unlike A Natural History of Dragons, however, The Tropic of Serpents is less concerned with the dragons themselves and spends more time detailing the lives of the people Isabella encounters, especially the Moulish, whom she spends a great deal of time with as she hunts down the dragons that were her primary reason for going on the expedition in the first place. Most of the knowledge she gains about dragons happens in the final few chapters of the book, and the rest is entirely about the reasons for her hunt, and the people she meets. Which is no bad thing, and given that this book provides and expansion of the world and takes place mostly in locations she’s never been in before and is presented as mysterious and foreign, it’s understandable why so much time would be devoted to that. As an anthropology geek, I ate it up, and adored every bit of the cultural exploration. Those looking for more information on dragons, however, may have found themselves a bit disappointed.

I’m not sure I could love this series more. Taking a scientific approach to fantastical concepts is something that has appealed to me for a long time, and Brennan does this with the ultimate fantasy trope of dragons. How they’re built, how they live, what they do, it’s all in here. And despite this book having more of an emphasis on the people than the dragons themselves, there is an ultimate reason for that; the lives of the Moulish are inextricably intertwined with that of the swamp-wyrms. You can’t tell the story of one without telling the story of the other. Dragons in Brennan’s world may not be commonplace as such but they are everywhere, a presence in every corner of the world. Studying them is like studying, say, birds; it’s not enough for some people to know that they can fly, but they want to know how they fly, how their bodies allow it when our bodies don’t, whether flightless birds are still technically birds, all the questions that scientists and explorers in this world have asked about any number of things over the course of history. Applying real scientific laws to such things instead of just handwaving it all by saying, “It’s magic,” or, “It’s fantasy so it doesn’t have to follow rules” allows for the creation of not just a richly complex real world but also shows that there’s plenty of room for rational thought within fantasy, something which I’ve heard is the biggest perceived detriment to a highly creative genre.

Fans of A Natural History of Dragons will likely still love this book as much as they did the first one. And those who haven’t yet started reading Brennan’s fantastic novels really ought to do so. They’re intelligent, creative, and a powerful deconstruction of so many things we take for granted even here and now, making them well worth paying attention to in more ways than just the obvious good storytelling. I know there’s going to be at least one more book in the series, and I, for one, can’t wait to dive back into the world and see what Isabella discovers next!

A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan

naturalhistoryofdragons  Buy from Amazon.ca or Amazon.com

Author’s website
Publication date – February 5, 2013

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.

Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.

Thoughts: This book is told as the fictional memoir of Isabella Trent, starting from her well-to-do childhood and her initial preoccupation with the common dragons around her home, through adulthood when she decided to throw societal convention to the wind and go off to study dragons on her own instead of staying at home like a proper lady. It was a conventional telling of an unconventional woman’s story, and it allowed for numerous observations not just on the events of her life but also for commentary on culture, gender roles, and general witticisms.

Lady Trent is not content with traditional gender roles and would much rather be a scientist, off in the wild studying dragons. Thanks to an indulgent father and an amused and somewhat befuddled eventual husband (Jacob), this dream becomes a reality, and undertakes a journey into the wilds to study dragons in their natural habitats. Much to the bemusement of many other members of the team.

Avoiding too much commentary on the names of the main couple of the story (Isabella and Jacob – sounds rather Twilight-inspired), the characters themselves were wonderful to read about. Isabella’s self-assured and independent attitude as a counterpoint to society’s restrictions against women were witty, poignant, and her headstrong nature made her a lot of fun. Jacob was more relaxed, permissive of his wife’s “eccentricities,” encouraging her scientific curiosities as he himself shares them. They make an interesting couple, driven and affectionate. They’re not without their troubles, but that just makes them more realistic. The romance between them was actually downplayed, their love coming across more between the lines than through displays of passion, and at times it was hard to see if she cared for him in the same way he cared for her, or whether he was just a means to an end. The subtleties in the writing and the interactions between them made for a stronger relationship, I think.

The scientific explorations of the book are aided along by the artwork of some of the dragons that Lady Trent and the team encounter on their travels, which, along with the beautiful cover art, are meant to convey the sketches that she talks about making, and some of the notes of draconic biology. Rarely do I bother commenting on the artwork associated with any given novel, but here, it’s worth the mention. The art is clean, attractive, and is entirely appropriate for the very plot of the novel itself.

Ultimately, this is a very creative experiment in incorporating traditional fantasy elements with a more modern period setting (Victorian/Edwardian instead of the classic medieval period), with a bonus in the interesting narrative presentation. Brennan’s writing is polished, her pacing slow but smooth, and her ideas sharp and intelligent. If you’re looking for a fantasy novel that really stands out from others, then give this one a try. Bring an open and keen mind, and soon you’ll be wanting to head out into the forests and mountains and seek out dragons of your own. (Just try to wait until you’ve read the upcoming sequel next spring, The Tropic of Serpents, so you’ll be up to date with all the latest scientific discoveries!)

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)