Within the Sanctuary of Wings is the last of these books, Lady Trent’s last memoir, and it’s a doozy. It delivers on tiny promises made throughout the other books, drawing everything together so it all makes a new kind of sense. I’m a bit baffled by people who think that the plot twist in this book comes out of nowhere and is not in keeping with what has happened before — we’ve been getting clues about this, hints about the importance of the Draconaeans to Isabella’s story even though she’s not all that interested in them. In some ways, I’m surprised I didn’t see this coming more. It fits exactly with what came before.
So what happens in this final novel? Isabella is told of the body of a new sort of dragon, found preserved in ice somewhere entirely unexpected. Naturally, Isabella has to embark on a hare-brained quest to find the body and record the new information it might bring, and Suhail and Tom are along for the ride. Of course they are.
And of course things don’t go entirely to plan. I fear to say too much even at this point, to avoid spoiling the surprise too much for anyone who still wants to experience it anew. Suffice it to say that this turn in Lady Trent’s career is great, and makes perfect sense.
And I cannot wait for the book following her granddaughter. In fact, I’m going to pick that up right now.
The three ‘W’s are what are you reading now, what have you recently finished reading, and what are you going to read next, and you can find this week’s post at the host’s blog here if you want to check out other posts.
What are you currently reading?
Most actively, I’m neck-deep in Turning Darkness into Light by Marie Brennan, the sequel to the Memoirs of Lady Trent series! Audrey is a delight, and I do so adore the way these books showcase the scientific and academic processes — coming from a background of both literature (with a lot of focus on translation) and later science as well, it’s just. Yay!
What have you recently finished reading?
I read Magic Bleeds on our flight back from Worldcon! (Well, half of it; I read the first half before — the flight isn’t that long/I don’t read that fast!) It has some of my pet peeves in fiction (miscommunication) and yet Kate and Curran are so extreme and stupid it ends up just being funny to me.
What will you be reading next?
I don’t know! I still have a crowded TBR for August, and I haven’t read even half of those books yet. I have a bunch of them half-finished, though. I know that the library really wants the book on the Aztecs back (in fact, the lady was reluctant to re-issue it at all) because someone shouldn’t have let me have it (it’s a reference book), so maybe I’ll get on with reading that!
In the Labyrinth of Drakes is so full of squee. That’s a technical term.
In this book, Tom and Isabella are shipped out to Akhia to work on a breeding program for dragons, in order to supply the army of Scirland with dragonbone for caeligers equivalent to those made by other world powers. So there’s one thread of plot whereby Isabella investigates the breeding of dragons, including a trip into the desert to find where they actually breed, and perhaps even witness a hatching.
Of course, we’re in Akhia, so there’s another thread to the plot as well: Isabella re-encounters Suhail, though his family disapprove very much of his association with her. Nonetheless, they find ways to speak to each other, and Suhail eventually accompanies her on her journey to the Labyrinth of Drakes, an area in the desert full of Draconaean remains and potentially untouched sites to delight the heart of any archaeologist.
There’s the personal plot, in which we finally discover who will turn out to be Isabella’s second husband (a fact which is a bit of a tease through the previous books, but obvious in retrospect), and then this intertwines with Isabella’s journey of scientific discovery and Suhail’s archaelogical pursuits. Overall, it’s very satisfying and not a bit wasted.
In this installment of the Memoirs of Lady Trent, Isabella and Tom are heading on a voyage around the world in search of dragons, in hopes of shaking up the way dragons are categorised and understanding how the species relate to each other. This gives us a whole bunch of new characters, including a somewhat older Jacob (the son) who is now actively a part of Isabella’s life, and Suhail, an archaeologist.
The first time I read this, apparently, I actually wanted Isabella to end up marrying Tom Wilker. Admittedly, now I know what happens in the later books, but this time I found myself focusing on the platonic relationship between them — I adore the way they depend on each other, and the way they’re inextricably part of one another’s lives through everything they’ve been through together and everything they believe. There’s no way Tom isn’t necessary to Isabella, and vice versa, and it’s lovely.
It’s also fascinating to continue seeing the scientific process played out in fiction: Isabella makes mistakes based on theorising ahead of having all the data and must correct herself, and it’s a) so typical that it affects her career because she’s a woman and has to be twice as good, and b) so lovely to see in fiction someone having to change their mind, instead of being a genius right off the bat. Because science needs that, science needs people who can recognise when they are wrong and correct themselves, because the aim is not personal aggrandisement but knowledge. And there, that’s another of the reasons why Isabella is just the best.
It’s also enjoyable to see more pieces falling into place, and having Suhail’s skill as an archaeologist beginning to add things to the picture. I had no idea where it was going, the first time, and yet now it’s obvious. It’s just so well put together!
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.
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.
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).