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.
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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.
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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…
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!
I “had” to reread this in preparation for the new book, but it was (of course) absolutely no hardship. I got into it right away, this time; before, it’d been a while since I read the first book, and I had to adjust a bit and remind myself of who everyone was. This time, it was all fresh enough to plunge right in, and it doesn’t disappoint. Brennan handles Isabella so well: we get to see all aspects of her life, like her relationship with her son (realistically painful, given the death of his father before he was born), her feelings about the religious/social stuff she has to bow to, her relationship with her family, and her attempts to make headway in the world of scholarship.
I was surprised when Marie Brennan mentioned that Tom Wilker was an incidental character who she didn’t expect to spend so much time with. For me, the books would be very different without Tom sharing Isabella’s dangers and trials. I have to confess that at one point I rather hoped he would be Lord Trent, though actually I do enjoy the intellectual friendship between them, and their support of each other without ever (well, almost ever) letting the fact that she’s a woman and he’s a man get in the way. People seem to find male-female friendship hard enough to grasp in today’s world, let alone a pseudo-Victorian one.
Also, yay for casual representation: Natalie Oscott does not, of course, have the words for it, but she’s asexual (not sex-averse, just it doesn’t drive her).
If you don’t love Isabella, I don’t know what to do with you. She’s resourceful, clever, but flawed as well, and her “deranged practicality” is exactly that, and if you weren’t reading her memoirs you’d be sure that she’d get herself killed that way. (Unless, of course, they do, and someone is reconstructing her memoirs from her notebooks, using her voice… It seems unlikely, but I’m suspicious-minded.)
One thing I would love to know: does Marie Brennan see Tom Wilker’s Niddey origins as having a direct analogue in our world? I’ve been picturing him as Welsh since, on one occasion when it said his accent was pronounced, he used a rather Welsh phrasing.
Reread this ready for the release of the fourth book in April (which I am very excited about and argh, can’t I just have it already?!). I didn’t love this the first time I read it, and now I’m not entirely sure why; I think I found it slow, but this time I tore through it. I guess it helps that I’m already acquainted with Isabella and I know what’s coming, and how straight-up awesome it all is. I described the series in a recommendation as “pseudo-Victorian lady becomes a scholar and takes on the patriarchy”, and that’s a pretty good summary, though it misses out on a lot of the extra stuff — the fine writing, the world-building, the attention to detail.
The thing I loved particularly, reading it this time, was Isabella’s relationship with her father and then later, with her husband. The way her father tries to find a way for her to be happy; the way Jacob slowly learns about her and learns to support her, learns to give her what she needs. The portrayal of Isabella’s periods of depression is great, too; the point isn’t belaboured, but it’s there.
And, you know, dragons. Dragons being studied, for science — the history/archaeology of an older civilisation that seemed to worship them — the glimpses of draconic intelligence and social life.
And despite the Victorian-ish tone of the memoir writing, it’s never boring; Brennan manages to capture the flavour of it without sacrificing fun. I really need to get my own copy of this.