Around the World with Dragons: A Look at The Memoirs of Lady Trent Series

The cover art for A Natural History of Dragons was what first attracted me to The Memoirs of Lady Trent series by Marie Brennan. That and its title. I have a degree in biology and a passion for dragons so this seemed like the perfect juxtaposition of those two interests. And it was. It so was. Brennan also managed to draw in archaeology and anthropology and a whole bunch of other “ologies,” making my nerdy heart very happy.

It’s a little hard to talk around all the spoilers, but I’ll do my best to keep them mild.

The Memoirs of Lady Trent tell the story of how Isabella Camherst grows from her role as amateur dragon enthusiast into her place as one of the most famous and influential dragon naturalists of her time. And how the world changes in light of her discoveries. We see her misadventures in childhood, the first events that led to her interest in dragons, and we follow her as she matures as a scholar over the course of several books.

It can be hard to write a character that both grows throughout a series and stays true to the personality traits that made them so lovable when you picked up the first book. But Brennan does this seamlessly. Isabella feels as real and complex as any friend who stumbles onto fame and then pursues it with wit and determined passion. With five books covering about thirty years of her life, Isabella has a chance to grow into and through many different roles that will feel familiar to readers. As wife, mother, widow, peer, and especially scholar, she is constantly becoming her best, never choosing to remain small when she can be so much more.

I do love how Isabella’s struggle against gender inequality was both historically accurate and relevant in a modern setting. Her world looks a lot like Victorian England so her frank discussions with her husband about his expectations for his wife and their marriage versus what society expected were quite fitting. But Isabella’s fight for recognition within the scientific community and respect for the place she eventually wins felt incredibly timely as well. Although we’ve made great strides, women are still carving out their place within the sciences, just as Isabella is.

And as her growth and situation reflect life so do her innermost thoughts and feelings. Brennan is scrupulously honest when dealing with the complexities of human emotion. She doesn’t shy away from things we would sometimes like to remain hidden inside our hearts. How much do we both love our children and secretly resent them just the tiniest bit? Or how do we conform to society enough to earn its respect but still push the boundaries to test the possible against the impossible? To see someone else struggling with the same feelings and overcoming them helps us come to grips with our own natures. With the benefit of hindsight, Isabella can confront the not always comfortable feelings that led her to certain decisions — and therefore discoveries.

I think that hindsight is one of the great strengths of these books. They are written as if an older and wiser Isabella is looking back on her life and the various events that led to her most famous discovery. She is speaking to those who already live in her world and are familiar with her work and its results. Brennan uses this perspective brilliantly, not only as a way to free her narrator from the constraints of the timeline but also as a direct form of foreshadowing. We get hints of what will be influential but not how or to what end. And Brennan is clever enough to be able to say “something was going to happen” in a way that didn’t let me guess the something while still making it seem inevitable after the fact. I spent all five books waiting for Isabella’s final discovery, absorbing all the little hints, positive I had guessed it, only to be blown away by the reality. And Brennan’s payoff was way better than mine, by the way.

That hindsight also let Brennan subtly stretch out the tension of discovery past the point I would normally have given it up as a lost cause. And she somehow made me enjoy the exercise in patience. This series is a master class on the art of the slow build. Each revelation became a gem to collect along the way, contributing to the science of the world and the story, and growing our understanding along with it. Until suddenly you know everything Isabella does, all the secrets are revealed, and looking back at each step along the way you say, “duh, of course that’s how it worked out.”

As a backdrop to all of those revelations were the incredible scenery and cultures Brennan worked effortlessly into the narrative. I’m starting to develop an appreciation for well-done settings. I never got bogged down in description and yet I had a very clear picture of every swamp, savanna, and glacier Isabella traversed. At first, I thought it seemed redundant to create an entirely new world for her to traipse around in, considering how much certain aspects of it looked like ours (just with more dragons). But the more I read, the more I appreciated the differences and the reasons for those differences. I loved that The Memoirs of Lady Trent read like a novel set in Victorian England but the alternate world allowed Brennan to explore politics and history and evolution without constraint.

While I got used to the naming conventions and the languages easily enough, I really think there was one thing that didn’t need to be changed between our world and that of Lady Trent. I never kept the days of the week and the names of the months straight. They weren’t used enough to give me a good reference for what time of the year each represented, and they didn’t add enough to the world to make that difference worth it. The change seemed entirely unnecessary at best and confusing at worst.

That seems like a fairly petty complaint when compared to the piles and piles of awesome the entire series delivers.

While Isabella has her own world and her own voice, I would compare her directly to Alexia Tarabotti in Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series. They had a similar feel, and they both made me laugh. If you like one, I think you’ll like the other.

Not only did each book live up to my expectations, the finale was well worth the time and effort I put into this series. I think it will gain even more depth in the second read-through now that I know what it’s building towards, and I plan to come back to it over and over again. And that’s the highest compliment I can pay a book, let alone five.

6 Comments

  • Shara White July 26, 2017 at 12:49 pm

    I adore these covers so, so very much. I read the first book and enjoyed it, and I’ve got the whole series in hardback. I really need to get back to these.

    And your comparison to Gail Carriger is…. intriguing to say the least. I found Carriger’s stuff laugh-out-loud hysterical, so barring the period, I wouldn’t have thought to make the comparison to Brennan’s series here.

    Reply
    • kendrame July 26, 2017 at 9:39 pm

      I thought Isabella was just as funny in more in her own head kind of ways. It was more the Victorian woman doing what was necessary not what was proper that struck me toward the end of the series.

      Reply
      • Shara White July 26, 2017 at 10:24 pm

        I definitely haven’t gotten far enough, then, to make that comparison! I do look forward to it, though!

        Reply
  • Weasel of Doom July 26, 2017 at 4:55 pm

    The comparison to Alexia Tarabotti is certainly intriguing me enough to add these books to my TBR shelf!

    Reply
  • Nancy O'Toole Meservier July 30, 2017 at 2:22 pm

    I really need to finish these (just two books left). I agree so much with what you’ve said here!

    Reply
  • Weasel of Doom August 7, 2017 at 3:25 pm

    Just finished listening to “A Natural History of Dragons”, and really enjoyed it!

    Reply

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