On the Origin of Draconic Species: A Review of Marie Brennan’s The Memoirs of Lady Trent

I forgot when I first embarked on The Memoirs of Lady Trent series but at the time, there were only two books out (so it was probably pre-2015). This year, I closed the cover on the 5th and final book. What I recently discovered was that the series was honoured with a nomination for a Hugo for Best Series in 2018, the 2nd year the award was created. In the award’s 1st year, Naomi Novik’s 9-book Temeraire series was nominated. Both would lose the award to Lois McMaster Bujold, but that is beside the point. My point is that it would be impossible to talk about The Memoirs of Lady Trent without talking about Temeraire. That and I need to read Bujold ASAP.

Before I go into what I think about the Lady Trent books, I must first describe what they are. The story follows the life and times of Isabella (or Lady Trent), a self-educated gentlewoman naturalist in the mold of Charles Darwin or Alfred Russel Wallace who travelled the globe studying the natural world (which in this case are dragons). The world Isabella belongs to is a facsimile of our 18th century world, which is essentially identical to ours except that it is populated with a myriad of draconic species, and familiar cultures are given a cosmetic makeover (Britain becomes Scirland, China became Yelang, Africa is Eriga, etc.) but are otherwise largely unchanged in essence. Ms Brennan, the author, holds an undergrad degree from Harvard in archaeology and folklore, and it was amply demonstrated in her excellent world-building. Part of the challenge Isabella faces in the course of five books are the patriarchal strictures placed upon her gender, and her aim of being inducted into her world’s version of the Linnean Society for her scholarly contributions.

Men commonly criticize women, and women scientists especially, for an over-abundance of sentiment. The reasoning goes that we feel too deeply; and our feelings, being unscientific, damage our scholarly detachment. Thus, by the logic of this syllogism, women are unsuited to scientific work. I have given this a variety of responses over the years, some longer and more elaborately constructed than others, but this being a memoir (and therefore by definition personal in tone), I will simply say that this is utter tosh.

In the Labyrinth of Drakes (2016) by Marie Brennan

While the Lady Trent series is often categorised as fantasy (because dragons), I personally see it as science fantasy or even outright sci-fi because Lady Trent’s dragons are flesh-and-blood animals grounded in biology, completely devoid of magic. The books themselves actually went quite some way to give the dragons plausible physiology and ethology (and the theory of evolution is established science, like in our world), while Isabella herself is depicted as a dedicated scientist who values observation and experimentation. More often than not, fiction celebrates irrationality and the power of faith and belief, but Isabella only trusts data and field work. When she has a hypothesis, she goes out to prove it—and in the face of disconfirming evidence, she adjusts her views to match reality. And she shrugs off traditions not because she’s a rebel but because they get in the way of her search for knowledge—like wearing pants or associating unchaperoned with men, which are still considered scandalous for women to do in her time. While conventional fantasy heroes slay dragons, she wants to learn about them and conserve them.

Given equal time in the series is the exploration of the various cultures she encounters in her travels, from pseudo-Africa to the pseudo-Himalayas to the pseudo-Pacific Islands. The differences in societal attitudes towards dragons (the Western view that dragons are symbols of evil versus the reverence of some oriental cultures towards them) are also represented. One thing that Ms Brennan did was ensure that our knowledge of real world cultures remains applicable in her made-believe world, enriching it. I was pleasantly surprised to find real Chinese and Malay/Indonesian words in these books, when Isabella went traipsing through the corresponding locales.

As these are presented as “memoirs”, they are narrated in the first person, and Isabella’s voice is charismatic, occasionally self-deprecating, often wry, and stabbed with sharpness in a very English way. Apparently, Ms Brennan imagined her sounding like the Dowager Countess of Grantham from Downton Abbey (and I was told that the audiobook version of the books are well-performed, and it made me want to revisit these stories in that format). If you fear that Ms Brennan’s books would come across too dry due to its academic flavour, I assure you that that fear is unfounded because their pages are well-provisioned with humour. As Isabella herself said:

One benefit of being an old woman now, and moreover one who has been called a “national treasure,” is that there are very few who can tell me what I may or may not write.

A Natural History of Dragons (2013) by Marie Brennan

Like The Memoirs of Lady Trent, the Temeraire series is also set in the 18th century but in an alternate history version of the world where the Napoleonic Wars were fought with draconic air forces. Laurence and his dragon, the titular Temeraire, also visited disparate parts of the world where different cultures developed unique relationships to dragons—from the Africans who see dragons as reincarnated ancestors, the Incan empire which are organised into households belonging to different dragons, the Chinese which reveres them as sages and royalty, to the English and French which see them as useful beasts replete with disparate working breeds like dogs or horses. In some ways, the integration of the existence of dragons into the world in Temeraire is done more interestingly but the focus of Ms Novik’s series is warfare as opposed to science. And Ms Novik’s dragons, which are talking thinking creatures, brought into question their rights and personhood as well. Both Temeraire and Lady Trent placed a lot of emphasis on geopolitics, and I felt both delivered on these themes with equally great panache. While the Temeraire series have a couple of terrible lows (like book 6 and 9), Lady Trent just kept getting better and better with no apparent dips in quality.

If The Memoirs of Lady Trent isn’t packed enough, there is also an overarching mystery involving a mysterious extinct dragon-worshipping culture called the Draconeans that have left ruins and artifacts all over the world, giving you a healthy side serving of archaeology and linguistics. It paid off quite explosively in the final book (which is my favourite, I might add), unlike Temeraire which I feel did not stick the landing.

While this shouldn’t strictly matter, I read this series in hardback—and the way these books are put together made them a real delight to read. The amazing covers and illustrations by veteran SFF artist, Todd Lockwood (who did the covers for R. A. Salvatore’s books), really enhanced the experience. The text and drawings were also printed using ink colours that match the covers (brown, grey/green, blue, red and purple), and the deckle edges really completed the feel that these are actual Victorian-era memoirs, even if I am not ordinarily a fan of them. These handsome volumes really make other series seem slapdash and drab in comparison, and I am not ashamed to say that the main reason why I picked them up is because of how they look.

Different coloured text and illustrations from different books in the series

So, you can pick up these books because they look splendid (you really CAN judge them based on their covers, in this case), or you can pick them up for some genuinely swashbuckling, pulpy fun. Or you can read them for the tone-perfect social commentary on class and gender; or if you want a genuinely inspiring role model; or even if you want to read a fantasy where the hero doesn’t set out to slay dragons for their treasure hoards but rather, to learn about them in the spirit of scientific inquiry. There is no shortage of reasons to read The Memoirs of Lady Trent, and I hope I have supplied you with plenty.

Rating: 4/5 Naga Pearls for the entire series. I give the individual books 3, 3, 4, 4, and 4.5 Pearls respectively.

If you like what you are reading, maybe you can Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com to keep this Naga caffeinated!

Published by A Naga of the Nusantara

A Naga is a divine dragon from Eastern Hindu-Buddhist tradition. The Nusantara is made up of nusa (island) and antara (between) and describes the Southeast Asian archipelago that includes Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. This particular Naga is Malaysian, born and bred. He loves reading and hoarding books, and enjoys bothering humans with what he thinks of them.

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