Ahhhhh, this was fabulous. I don’t imagine there are many people out there who haven’t heard of the Lady Trent books by now, but in case you’re one of them they are a pentalogy set in a Victorian-esque alternate world in which dragons exist in abundance. The series is written in the style of the memoirs of one Isabella Camherst, Lady Trent, a woman who defies social expectations to become a renowned dragon naturalist. And they’re shaping up to be my favourite books this year.
And in a couple of days’ time Marie Brennan’s Turning Darkness into Light is going to be released, set in the same universe and telling the story of Isabella’s grand-daughter, Audrey Camherst. For the first time ever I am writing a timely and pertinent thing about a recent-ish thing that is related to a hot-off-the-press thing. Will wonders never cease?
Let’s start with the world-building, shall we? The world-building is my very favourite thing. So, yes, Brennan has chosen a Victorian-y social set up for her heroine to throw herself up against/ cut her teeth on/ break new ground in. Isabella is from a moderately wealthy family in Scirland (for Scirland read Britain) and faces the usual upbringing of ladylike pursuits and education in preparation for marriage and motherhood. From a young age however, Isabella is of a scientific persuasion (if I hadn’t fallen in love with Isabella’s voice right away the pigeon scene would have got me), and with the help of a sympathetic older brother and father she is able to satisfy her intellectual curiosity via her father’s library, it being the done thing for a gentleman of any means to be well informed on as many new scholarly developments as possible. And while she does her duty by her family when she reaches marriageable age, her father gives her the gentlest of nudges towards the most suitable candidates for her needs and she quite satisfactorily ends up married to Jacob Camherst (more on him in a moment). So far so run of the mill. What I really loved was that Brennan doesn’t make things too easy for her heroine as soon as she has a male protector. Yes, Jacob provides Isabella with a respectable gloss and goes into the marriage knowing that she has ‘unladylike’ passions, but that gloss only sticks as long as Isabella ‘behaves’ and those passions and interests cannot be denied.
And so Jacob and Isabella end up going on a scientific expedition to Vystrana (for Vystrana read Germany, or possibly Austria) to study dragons. And no, it’s not the done thing, and yes, there will be repercussions. Ostensibly, Isabella goes as a secretary and artist, thankfully she ends up getting to do far more than just file papers and draw dragon bits. But after the slow (delightful, but, yes, slow) introduction to the Camhersts’ world this is where the story really gets going and while I positively lingered over the first section the rest of the book was read in a breathless rush. Because nineteen-year-old Isabella’s first experiences of foreign travel and adventure are brilliantly written. There’s the culture clash between her and her Vystrani ‘maid’ Dagmira, the contention between the whole expedition group and the villagers of Drustanev where they’ve arranged to stay, the social practices and religious and superstitious differences, the politics of the region, and the possible impact that a certain scientific discovery could have on the wider world of Anthiope. I loved that this world felt so real, that I could not only visualise it, but that I could feel the consequences and difficulties as real too.
But enough about the world-building, let’s talk about the characters. The characters are my very favourite thing. Obviously, there’s Isabella, but I hope you don’t mind if I hold off talking about her for just a moment or two. Brennan has that wonderful, enviable skill of being able to write just a few lines that conjure up a character beautifully. Even though we meet Isabella’s mother, father and favourite brother Andrew for mere moments, they each feel nicely distinct and not just handy place holders. Jacob though, is very satisfying. A young man with no particular intention of marrying when he first meets Isabella, and not at all sure what to do with a wife once they are married (Brennan has written those first few months of marriage so well – the sudden intimacy with someone barely known, the change to routine and expectations, the making room for another person), he is quietly charming in his reactions to his new wife’s requests, and the development of their relationship (never in the foreground, but something comfortingly there where we need it to be) is quirky and personal and really quite lovely. I particularly enjoyed that he faces his own set of consequences for ‘allowing’ his wife to accompany him on their expedition and that he argues her case with Mr Wilker (and no doubt others) and that he is brave enough to do those things. It’s not sound and fury bravery, but it’s still bravery.
Lord Hilford, bluff and hearty leader of the expedition and the moneybags behind it is an interesting blend of enlightened and traditional who always travels with his own chair. His assistant Tom Wilker is a character I hope will be given chance for development in the later books. He clearly doesn’t like Isabella or her inclusion on the expedition, but his reasons for this make him much more interesting than he was at first when I thought he was just being a twit. A working-class man who has fought hard to get where he is, he doesn’t do anything particular to make me like him so much other than occasionally cross swords with Isabella, but as he proves just as able to put aside his dislike of her in the interests of studying dragons as she does of him, I like him and that’s all there is to it. And then there is the work of art that is Dagmira. Assigned to be Isabella’s maid during her stay in Drustanev, Dagmira is an eye-rolling, hand-kissing, heroic wonder. As the older, wiser Lady Trent points out, her younger self knew only a little Vystrani and was in no-way worldly-wise on this first adventure, which makes her every interaction with Dagmira painfully comical. But the local woman proves an invaluable ally and I defy anyone not to be fond of her, at the very least, by the end of the book.
But enough about that lot, let’s get to Isabella, Lady Trent, herself. Isabella is my very favourite thing. Her voice is flawless throughout as she records the doings of her younger self and reflects on the wisdom or foolishness of each. She interjects to laugh at herself (instantly endearing), or correct herself, and tantalizingly foreshadows her future adventures. It’s a clever, practical, arch voice belonging to someone who has definitely been there and done that, but hasn’t lost any of that spark, nor any of her love for dragons. The older Isabella frames the story of the younger without holding back or covering up her flaws. And this device is the one thing that takes this from being just an enjoyable book, to being an awesome one.
But enough about the humans, let’s talk about the dragons. The dragons are my … well, you get the idea by now, I hope. From tiny garden Sparklings to the local Wolf-Drake, from the Akhian Desert Drake in the king’s menagerie to the rock-wyrms of Vystrana, every time a dragon popped up I was squeaking with excitement. (Todd Lockwood’s illustrations within and his beautiful wraparound cover art produce the exact same response). There are some beautiful, awe-inspiring glimpses of dragons that just make me want to claw myself into Isabella’s world so I can see them with my own eyes. If this is only book one, I can’t wait to see what else there is to see. There are also the faintest beginnings of a suggestion that dragons may be much more than just another wild animal. And I am here for that.
Oh yeah, there’s also a couple of mysteries, a whole heap of adventure, and more feels than you can shake a stick at. And that’s all my very favourite thing too.
Just read it, ‘kay? You can thank me later.
“It’s — it’s as if there is a dragon inside me. I don’t know how big she is; she may still be growing. But she has wings, and strength, and — and I can’t keep her in a cage. She’ll die. I’ll die. I know it isn’t modest to say these things, but I know I’m capable of more than life in Scirland will allow. It’s all right for women to study theology, or literature, but nothing so rough and ready as this. And yet this is what I want. Even if it’s hard, even if it’s dangerous. I don’t care. I need to see where my wings can carry me.”