The continued adventures of Lady Isabella Trent, Victorian explorer and DRAGON NATURALIST. In this volume, Isabella sails around the world on the appropriately named Basilisk, accompanied by her young son Jake, an underwater archaeologist named Suhail, and other companions.

I enjoyed this the most of the series so far. It strikes a perfect balance between action and exploration. Isabella has matured enough to be interesting in a different way from the monomaniac of the first book: still obsessive and headstrong, but more introspective, thoughtful, and interested in people in addition to dragons.

The dragons are great, and there are lots of them. I thoroughly enjoyed the interconnected mysteries of taxonomy, biology, and history. Some mysteries are solved, but others are deepened. I feel confident that the final explanation will be satisfying. (I’m assuming it’s not going to be Isabella discovering evolution, because that seems to already have been discovered – she mentions the concept of different species having a common ancestor as if that’s an ordinary idea to consider.)

The supporting characters in are more vivid and interesting than in the previous installments. Jake comes to life as a personality, both like and unlike his mother, obsessive but on a different topic. Their relationship neatly steers between the obvious clichés of “I hate you for loving dragons more than me” and “Who cares about dragons now that I’m a mommy.” Suhail is a satisfying possible love interest, both sexy and geeky. To Isabella, he’s mostly sexy because he’s geeky, though she does appreciate the multiple occasions when his underwater explorations require him to remove his shirt. I also liked the adrenaline junkie ship’s captain, Aekinitos.

But my favorite supporting character was Heali’i. And that leads neatly into spoilers. Read more... )

A tremendously fun and unexpectedly thought-provoking installment of the series, with all the dragons one could desire.

I read an ARC that was missing the illustrations, but based on the stellar quality of the illustrations in the first two books and the extremely tempting captions, I will have to buy the actual book to get them. I would also pay for a book of more illustrations plus Isabella’s field notes on dragons, and I bet I’m not the only one.

Voyage of the Basilisk: A Memoir by Lady Trent (A Natural History of Dragons)
In which Lady Isabella Trent, alt-Victorian dragon naturalist and explorer, goes to Africa.

Needless to say, she learns about dragons, but also about herself. She’s already grown up quite a bit at the start of the book, and grows more during it, becoming less blinkered, reckless, and self-centered. This allows for a wider and more complex view of both the individual people and the cultures she encounters, but loses some of the humor of the first book, which largely came from Isabella being monomaniacal.

The first half of the book is largely taken up with Isabella traveling and meeting people and learning about the region’s culture and politics— but not, alas, its dragons. That part was interesting on a worldbuilding level, but slow. I also really, really wanted more dragons.

About halfway through, the plot gains a lot of suspense, some dragons appear, and I got more involved with Isabella’s character growth. The second half read very quickly, and had some fun surprises. But while the dragons were satisfyingly different from the ones in the first book, they play a surprisingly small role— more quest object than actual presence. Given how fascinating they were in the first book, I definitely could have used more dragons in this one.

While a solid story in its own right, the book does feel like a lot of it is there to set up later events. I’m looking forward to Voyage of the Basilisk, which I suspect and hope will have more dragons.

A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent

The Tropic of Serpents: A Memoir by Lady Trent (A Natural History of Dragons)

Voyage of the Basilisk: A Memoir by Lady Trent (A Natural History of Dragons)
I have read quite a few memoirs by British Victorian travelers, including some by women. They make good reading, if you like that sort of thing: evocative, intriguing, infuriating, sometimes ahead of their time, sometimes very much a part of it. The glimpse into a different mindset is a large part of what makes them interesting, in the sense of "the past was a different country."

And, of course, they would be even better reading with DRAGONS.

A Natural History of Dragons is the first volume of the memoirs of Isabella, Lady Trent, famous explorer and dragon naturalist. They include lovely pencil illustrations of her obsession: dragons.

Possibly inspired by Isabella Bird (A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, Sketches In The Malay Peninsula), Isabella is not exactly an unreliable narrator, but she is a product of her fictional culture— a woman with some liberal views (though still within her context) and some distinctly not. The attitudes of the characters are not necessarily critiqued within the book; that is left to the reader. Similarly, Isabella can be self-centered, obsessive, privileged, and reckless. She’s not always likable, but her flaws are what make her interesting.

Personally, I was fine with being allowed to come to my own conclusions without being presented with an obligatory “voice of the correct point of view” opinion within the text itself. I found Isabella’s flaws and blinkered point of view refreshing. It made the book read much more like its premise— the memoir of a Victorian lady explorer WITH DRAGONS— than it would have if she had been given all the attitudes of the modern reader.

On that note, be aware that the book contains animal harm in the form of the hunting and dissection of dragons. Also a hilariously indignant defense of such by the now-elderly Isabella, ostensibly to her younger readers of more delicate dispositions, but also, on a meta level, to outraged readers of the novel by Marie Brennan, pointing out that many naturalists of earlier eras did indeed hunt as well as observe.

The dragons are meticulously detailed, yet pleasingly mysterious. Isabella is obsessed with dragons largely because they’re poorly understood, so we learn with her. By the end, we have a handful of answers and a whole lot of new questions.

Among the more subtle worldbuilding touches is that Judaism takes the place of Christianity in terms of being the religion that caught on. Because the names are different, I wasn’t sure of this until something religious finally got mentioned without a terminology shift, when some characters sit shiva for the dead. I leave it to the alternate history buffs to debate whether the British Victorian age would have stayed otherwise similar to the actual one in that event. (Not to mention in the event of DRAGONS.)

Leisurely but engrossing, the novel immerses you in a familiar-but-alien world and a familiar-but-alien narrator. I am a sucker for the scientific exploration of a fantasy phenomenon, and this book very much satisfies on that basis. And while one mysterious dragon-related issue (the burned-in footprints) turns out to have the obvious explanation, the motivation of the villain was unexpected, creepy, convincing, and probably fodder for more story to come. I enjoyed the hell out of this book, and will be getting the sequel shortly. I could read an unlimited number of volumes of Isabella wandering around, studying dragons.

A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent
Smart, action-oriented, female-centric, small-scale sword and sorcery. If that sounds good to you, you will almost certainly like these books.

Mirage is a Hunter (mercenary warrior/detective/etc) with a mysterious background and skills like no one’s ever seen; Miryo is a witch awaiting the sometimes-deadly test that will allow her to claim her magical powers. These women have never met or even heard of each other. But while Mirage is hired by the witches she hates to investigate a murder, with her own death the penalty for failure, Miryo is informed that witches gain their powers by being split, in infancy, into two babies. One becomes the witch, and the other, an empty, soulless shell, is killed.

But Miryo’s doppelganger gained a soul and was hidden away… and if Miryo, who has never fought in her life, doesn’t kill her other half with her own hands, both of them will die.

I enjoyed the first book, which stands on its own, but the second is significantly better: far more interesting supporting characters, a wider world, and more delving into the fascinating implications of the weird magic system. Both books are solidly plotted and full of the martial arts and moral dilemmas one would expect from the premise. Almost all the major characters are women, which I liked.

Unusually for me, I wished that the possibly-romantic element with one of the few male characters had been more developed and explicit: for spoilery reasons, Mirage and/or Miryo being involved in a romance with anyone would have added a lot of fun complications.

The parts of the worldbuilding which Brennan developed at all are developed very well, especially in the second book: the social structures and politics of the witches and the Hunters, and the metaphysics of the very satisfyingly complicated magic. Other areas of worldbuilding, such as food, what people do for fun, and much of the physical environment, are almost non-existent. I would have liked more atmosphere, which is often one of the highlights of swords and sorcery. There is also a fair amount of completely literal deus ex machina, but it’s well-handled and makes sense within the context of the books.



Feel free to put spoilers in comments.
Midnight Never Come, by Marie Brennan.

In parallel stories which eventually mesh, a tale of parallel courts closely joined unfolds. In London, an ambitious courtier tries to uncover a mysterious influence affecting Queen Elizabeth, and in the Faerie Onyx court, a disgraced faerie courtier tries to win back her position by impersonating a human woman in the court above. This seemed very well-researched, and the politics are laid out so clearly that even I could follow them. It's interesting but a bit meandery at first, but becomes quite gripping about halfway through. There are sequels but the conclusion is satisfying and feels conclusive.

My big nitpick was that the main relationship in the story, between the human and faerie courtiers, begins as one of deception and then grows into something real. But the deceptive relationship, which lasts a year and is very intense, occurs almost entirely off-page, and so the change from fake to real loses much of the power it could have had. We also miss Lune manipulating the man she will eventually love, and watching him fall in love with her human front. Nor do we get to see much of what her human persona is like, and get to judge for ourselves how congruent it is with her real self. I would have liked a longer book that spent some time on that missing year, rather than simply skipping it.

Overall though, I enjoyed it a lot, even though faeries are a very hard sell to me nowadays.

First Light, by Rebecca Stead. Extremely readable and quirky middle-grade sf with parallel stories (again) following a boy who goes with his scientist parents to Antarctica, and a girl living in an underground world beneath the ice. Clever and compelling, but suffers a bit in comparison with Stead's own When You Reach Me, which uses some similar plot devices better, and also has better characterization. Still well worth reading.

The Cats of Seroster (Piccolo Books), by Robert Westall.

Again with the parallel stories! An old British fantasy, in which sentient cats in a medieval human kingdom embark upon a complex plot to restore the deposed king (who will treat them well) to his throne, and get rid of a usurper (who hates cats.) The story threads follow the cats from own point of view, and also the hapless traveler magically forced into the role of the legendary savior of the kingdom. Very readable, with excellent battle sequences and an unusual perspective in general, but marred by casual but persistent and creepy misogyny: rape, rape threats, the only major human female is unnamed and does nothing but have sex with the hero, etc.

The Eagle of the Ninth, by Rosemary Sutcliff.

Beautifully written historical adventure set in Roman Britain, which reminded me a bit in prose quality, atmosphere, emotional and political complexity, and characterization of A Wizard of Earthsea, though there's no magic. Roman soldier Marcus is severely wounded in a battle with the native Britons and forced into a very early retirement. When he sees a terrified young man his own age forced to fight as a gladiator, Marcus buys him as a slave. The young man turns out to be a captive British warrior, Esca. The two young men end up traveling in search of the lost legion of Marcus's father. Lots of warriorly bonding ensues, along with adventure and a complex look at the colonialism of the time.

I am a complete sucker for Noble Warrior Guys bonding and adventuring and "He was such a great fighter, I was honored to kill him," and this book is all about that. (Slash fans, don goggles now.) I loved the language, the vivid setting, and basically everything about this book. I wish there were more women, though the ones we do meet are interesting and non-stereotypical. The very beginning was a little slow and heavy on historical detail, but I was soon grabbed and thereafter didn't put the book down till I had finished it.


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