Tag: Marie Brennan


Review – Tropic of Serpents

Posted 15 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Tropic of Serpents by Marie BrennanTropic of Serpents, Marie Brennan

When I was first reading the series, this is the book that really got me hooked. Isabella’s weathered the loss of her husband, and has bounced back by throwing herself into further research, planning to discover more about dragons. She and Thomas Wilker — and the new character Natalie Oscott — are heading to Bayembe, a stark contrast from their time in cold Vsytrana. Over the course of this book they chase dragons across the savannah and through a swamp. It’s hard to say whether the most interesting aspects of these books are the dragons, and the portrayal of Isabella’s scientific endeavours surrounding them, or the cultures Isabella comes into contact with… or the political situations she manages to muddy. Really, I suppose, it’s the fact that there is so much there, and that it portrays scientific endeavours as embedded into everything else.

It’s obviously intentional that these books are very much like a Victorian explorer reporting back on native societies around the world, but it can be a bit discomforting at times; Isabella is being a bit of a tourist in that way, for all that she tries to be respectful of the cultures she meets. There’s condescension in the way she agrees to go along with a rite or accept a taboo just to further her eventual goal, and while I think Brennan tries to be respectful of the history, and have Isabella point up the issues in hindsight, it can still be rather uncomfortably too much like an endorsement of that kind of exploration and colonialism. These books repeatedly engage with that, sometimes with success, and sometimes… well, sometimes it doesn’t quite work for me, anyway.

That said, I’m not sure you can make an analogue of this era of exploration without also having to deal with the racial and colonial issues that came with it. Any character in this situation is bound to raise this kind of discomfort, and it would be very difficult to ameliorate it entirely, I think. History is full of problematic attitudes, and these books address a lot of them, like the struggle for women and working-class men to be treated as scientists. It succeeds in many ways!

Whatever else it is, it is definitely entertaining, and it’s fascinating to see the way Brennan has woven dragons into the history and the fabric of the societies Isabella comes into contact with, in greater and lesser ways. I enjoy Natalie as a character a lot — she’s no less driven than Isabella to break the mould, though her interests are different — and this is also the book in which I fell for Tom Wilker as a character. I adore the relationship between Tom and Isabella, and the way they slowly learn to respect and rely on each other.

This book contains one of the best examples of Isabella’s “deranged practicality”, and I refuse to spoil it for anyone who hasn’t read the book yet, but it’s a pretty amazing demonstration of how nuts she is and why she is awesome.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – A Natural History of Dragons

Posted 2 July, 2019 by Nikki in Reviews / 6 Comments

Cover of A Natural History of Dragons by Marie BrennanA Natural History of Dragons, Marie Brennan

I thought I’d read this more recently, but apparently not since 2016? It’s surprising how fresh it all stayed in my mind, really! This is one of my favourite series, I think, and there’s so many reasons why.

Reason one: Isabella. She’s far from perfect as a person — she’s prone to speaking before she thinks, thinking badly of people, thinking herself above people — but she also grows throughout the books (learning that her colonialist assumptions are just that, for instance). From the start, she has a thirst for knowledge, and a commitment to science; to finding out the truth and sharing it, while doing her best to be ethical and deal fairly with the people she meets.

Reason two: the science. It’s dragons, but it’s also a Victorian naturalist going through proper scientific process. Making a hypothesis and testing it. In this book in particular, I laughed because she called out bad statistical analysis in her younger self, pointing out that the cry that “it can’t be coincidence!” is really… not how science is done, and it could be coincidence.

Reason three: the dragons, of course.

There are other reasons to love the series, though they mostly come in the later books. I do enjoy the romance between Jacob and Isabella; I think I’ve gained in appreciation for it since I first read the book. It feels necessary to shaping who Isabella is, what she believes, what she’s later able to do.

When I first read the book, I worried a little that it would set up a kind of pattern: Isabella goes to research dragons, stuff happens, she returns home to prepare to do it again. But it’s better than that: you can follow genuine scientific progress through the series, as Isabella slowly starts to piece things together, and there have been hints all along. It’s great. I do recommend these books so much.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Ars Historica

Posted 18 February, 2018 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Ars Historica by Marie BrennanArs Historica, Marie Brennan

Not all of these stories are related to the Onyx Court stories, but enough of them are to make me really want to pick that series back up. I love the way Brennan weaves history with fantasy in these books, and especially her self-imposed rule about not allowing faeries to be the primary cause of human historical events — that way, she avoids having anything too neat and convenient, and has to find clever ways to write her faeries in. And oh, she does.

I found pretty much all of these stories satisfying, and there were none that I felt were too long or too short; Brennan really has a feel for how to write a self-contained story, even in her more sprawling worlds like the Onyx Court.

Rating: 5/5

Buy this book: Amazon UK | Amazon US
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Review – Maps to Nowhere

Posted 22 December, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Maps to Nowhere by Marie BrennanMaps to Nowhere, Marie Brennan

Almost all of these short stories worked for me, which is a wonder (I can be picky!). Each of them had some really fascinating ideas, and the only one that left me cold was ‘Love, Caycee’ (and even then, I liked the idea, it’s just I don’t think it quite came together into a story I found fun to read). Of course, one of my favourites is the one featuring Isabella Trent, particularly for the last letter in the narrative. Of course Isabella would get herself arrested over a matter of science!

But the others are all worth the time too, and I particularly liked ‘Once a Goddess’, the first story of the collection. Brennan is really great at atmosphere, as these stories show; each of them evoked its own landscape in my head.

Rating: 5/5

Buy this book: Amazon UK | Amazon US
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Review – Lightning in the Blood

Posted 17 June, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 0 Comments

Cover of Lightning in the Blood by Marie BrennanLightning in the Blood, Marie Brennan

I feel like I might have appreciated this more if I’d refreshed my memory on the first book, Cold-Forged Flame, first. I remembered the basics, of course, but some of the subtleties apparently escaped my brain even in the short time since I read the first book. Still, I do find the world really interesting and Ree’s role in the world compelling. The end of this book came as no real surprise as I’d already pegged Ree as a wanderer type.

I felt like maybe I didn’t connect enough with this one, though. I wasn’t hooked on it, at least. It’s still well-written, but I do recommend having the first book fresher in your mind when you start it. And maybe I’m also suffering a little from missing Brennan’s Lady Trent, now that series is finished. I’ll be interested to revisit this (and the first book) when another book is on the horizon…

Rating: 3/5

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Review – Within the Sanctuary of Wings

Posted 16 June, 2017 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Within the Sanctuary of Wings by Marie BrennanWithin the Sanctuary of Wings, Marie Brennan

I kind of procrastinated on reading this book, or at least finishing it, because I didn’t want the adventures to be over. This is the concluding volume of Lady Trent’s memoirs, and I already miss her ‘deranged practicality’, her curiosity and drive, and the people around her. Still, it’s a worthy end to her story, concluding her major scientific studies with — well, I’d better be careful not to say too much. The series has been building up to this point, and I wouldn’t want to spoil the moment of realisation and discovery halfway through this book.

My only quibble, perhaps, is a minor spoiler — I find it amazing that Isabella’s team come out of all of this so well. They end up in what I think are an analogue for the mountains of Tibet, suffer avalanches and punishingly cold temperatures, and yet for the most part, they come through these trials whole or able to heal. No frostbite, no permanent injuries, etc. It’s a bit of a contrast to the end of book one, where of course Isabella’s husband dies. I probably would’ve been annoyed if Isabella didn’t get a happy ending, but maybe this one felt a little too easy.

I don’t want to end on a quibble, though, because I truly love these books — more than I ever thought I would, the first time I read A Natural History of Dragons. Isabella is an amazing character, and I can’t help but love her and most of those around her. I really enjoy that the books have some illustrations of dragons and finds, and that Isabella is a serious scholar who tests hypotheses and formulates theories — she doesn’t get to the answer in one leap of intuition in book one and then simply have to prove what she already knows. The five books each see her learning more, changing her ideas, and being surprised along the way.

And lest you be worried about the Victorian-ish setting of these books and what effect it might have on the narration, don’t. If they were actually set in Victorian times, I’d call them anachronistic — there’s a flavour of the old fashioned in some of the phrasing and such, but no more. Suffice it to say that my sister read the last two books in about 24 hours — snatching my copy of this one from my hand almost as soon as she saw me when I arrived to visit.

If my wife would start reading them now, that’d be good. I’m waiting (and hoping she likes Isabella and her adventures as much as I do).

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Cold-Forged Flame

Posted 15 August, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Cold-Forged Flame by Marie BrennanCold-Forged Flame, Marie Brennan

Received to review via Netgalley

I was so excited to receive this: I love Marie Brennan’s work, and by coincidence my request was even approved on my wedding day. So of course I’ve hurried to read it, and I wasn’t disappointed at all — it’s part of Tor.com’s novella series, so it is short, but for me it avoids the issues of many other novellas by being both a whole story in itself but with scope for more stories. I think that’s partially what makes it satisfying: it leaves space for more without feeling unfinished, rather than tying things up neatly with a bow or leaving too much undone. I don’t think more stories are necessary: the questions the story poses are answered.

I like the set-up, and to say too much about it would probably spoil the story. The main character doesn’t know what is happening any more than the reader does, and what she remembers or realises is revealed at more or less the same pace as the reader discovers it. It’s an interesting world, one which I’d gladly read more of with other characters too, and Marie Brennan’s writing makes it a smooth and engaging read. This is probably among my favourites of the Tor.com novellas so far, and it’s not just because it’s Marie Brennan’s work — it’s also because it does a really good job with the form.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – Midnight Never Come

Posted 20 June, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Midnight Never Come, by Marie BrennanMidnight Never Come, Marie Brennan

I actually picked this up before I ever got into the Lady Trent books, which I have loved so much, but I bought it again when Titan reissued it with a pretty new cover. Fired up with enthusiasm for Brennan’s work and knowing there’s a wait until the next Lady Trent book, I finally decided to read it. I was a bit daunted by the length, but in the end that felt perfect: just the right amount to dig into. The faerie court is interesting, and I enjoy the fact that Brennan kept it period and geography-appropriate in terms of which sorts of fae were present. Genre-wise, it feels more like historical fiction than fantasy, in the sense that I think the pacing and politicking belongs to a historical novel, and the fantasy is situated within that historical context (rather than the other way round).

To me, reading it that way, the pacing was mostly really good, though some of Michael Deven’s sections were frustratingly disconnected from the main plot — partly by their mundanity, and partly because Michael isn’t a major player or even properly clued in for a lot of the book. Lune’s sections work better because she is more aware of the situation on a macro-level, and though her goal is personal advancement, at least her eyes are open to the wider implications of what she’s involved in.

The only part that didn’t quite work for me was Michael and Lune’s relationship; I felt a little lukewarm about them individually, so it didn’t add up to much more with them together, and so parts of the plot which relied on their relationship fell a little bit flat for me. I was really more interested in some of the background, the history of Invidiana, the links between the courts, etc. But overall it still worked pretty well for me, and I’m excited to read more in this universe. I suspect it’ll get better as it goes along, too, knowing how much I enjoy Brennan’s most recent work.

Rating: 4/5

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Review – In the Labyrinth of Drakes

Posted 20 April, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of In The Labyrinth of Drakes by Marie BrennanIn the Labyrinth of Drakes, Marie Brennan

I was dying for this book ever since I finished Voyage of the Basilisk, and I made sure to get hold of it the very first chance I got, and reread the other books in preparation. I’ve loved this series more and more with each book, and this one is no exception: there’s so much awesome stuff — more biology, more anthropology, more archaeology, more Isabella, and of course, more politics. It’s lovely to follow Isabella and Tom and see them finally getting the recognition they deserve, even if they still have bullshit to navigate as well.

For those following the series, this is so satisfying: we get the solutions to various riddles about dragons, and we also get developments in Isabella’s personal life. If you’ve been wanting to know how she becomes Lady Trent, or who her second husband is — well, here you finally find out.

The only disappointments are not seeing much of Natalie or Jake, in my view. I love the way Isabella supports and promotes other women, and I want more of it, and Natalie was such a big part of how that got started. And she’s asexual and an engineer and just… gimme more! Gimme more of all of them. But I do adore how much we get of Tom Wilker and how much he’s developed: how he’s come to trust Isabella and support her, and how he’s not going anywhere without her as his partner. I really, really love that aspect; the way they stick together, and use their respective strengths for the other’s benefit.

And if you were wondering, yes: we see more of Suhail. Not surprisingly, perhaps, since this book is set in Akhia, and Suhail was Akhian — that detail was, of course, no coincidence. And Suhail gets his Howard Carter-esque “wonderful things” moment, which is also a delight.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – Voyage of the Basilisk

Posted 16 April, 2016 by Nikki in Reviews / 7 Comments

Cover of Voyage of the Basilisk by Marie BrennanVoyage of the Basilisk, Marie Brennan

I think, the first time I read this, I may have observed that it’s beginning to push the bounds of credulity that Isabella (and dragons) should get tangled up in so much politics. I can’t say I actually noticed that, this time — it seems natural, when you just read the books straight through like this, because Isabella is willing to go anywhere and do just about anything for dragons. And of course, that means she’s in the least appropriate places for someone of her background (at least as far as her peers are concerned), and so of course she stumbles into things.

Besides, it’s Isabella. You’d be disappointed if you didn’t see her blundering into a plot or intrigue.

The story of Isabella’s time on the Basilisk is a lot of fun; the first half of the book is lighter, since it’s more travelogue-ish, until the point where the Basilisk is nearly wrecked and they have to go ashore. That opens up the world of the villagers they have to interact with, and involves a rather neat plot with a sort of third gender concept — on this island, those who are “dragon-spirited” have different social rules, and Isabella has to “marry” an island woman to calm down their fears about what she might do. Heal’li, the woman who helps her and guides her, is a pretty awesome character, and honestly I could do with a ton more of her. (And some note on whether “she” is indeed her preferred pronoun, or if, like Isabella, she’s bowed to necessity and allowed herself to be treated as female when she does in fact identify as male. I suspect not, given the way she embraces femininity, but it’s awkward to tell from Isabella’s point of view.)

And of course, Basilisk introduces new characters like Aekinitos (the “mad” captain, whose similarities to Isabella could have been used to good effect, though he was mostly in the background), Suhail the archaeologist, and even a rather more grown-up Jake (who immediately decides to become a ship’s boy, of course). I do feel the lack of Natalie, in this book; Abby isn’t much of a replacement, since she’s mostly there to keep an eye on Jake, both for Isabella’s sake and the sake of the plot.

I could probably go on for hours about all the things I love about this series — the societies, the natural history, the more general science, Tom Wilker, the enthusiasms of Suhail and Isabella — their sheer joy in what they do — the different dragons, the theories… the way that Isabella’s academic career unfolds: with some success, but by stages, as she makes a way for herself in a path barred for most women, and brings other women with her.

Don’t take my word for it, if you haven’t tried these books yet. There’s only one more to come after Labyrinth of Drakes (the fourth book), so it’s not going to be an epic series — and in fact, it reads all too quickly. I want more Isabella!

Rating: 5/5

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