Welcome to Smugglivus 2016! Throughout this month, we will have guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2016, looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2017, and more.
I was very excited to be invited to participate in Smugglivus for the first time this year! Thanks to Ana and Thea for the opportunity.
In considering a topic for my contribution, I went back to the overall theme of the month: what were our favorite reads of 2016, and what are we most looking forward to in 2017? And I discovered that I could answer both questions with the same series: the Lady Isabella Trent books by Marie Brennan.
I have, over my life as a fantasy fan, often sought out stories that feature dragons. I could have just as easily written this post about Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series (which came to a quite satisfying and somewhat surprising conclusion this year), or the Dragon Age games (even though dragons themselves are sometimes incidental to the overall story), or the web series Critical Role (a long-running Dungeons & Dragons campaign broadcast once each week via Twitch). But much as I enjoy all of these, I most wanted to share my love for Lady Trent and her story, which is easily my favorite ongoing book series right now.
In my view, there are a number of features that mark this series apart. One is the strong voice of a female protagonist. Isabella Trent tells her own story, in the form of memoirs written at the end of a long and illustrious career. One advantage of this format: the reader knows from the very beginning that the narrator is a woman who has successfully risen to the top of a male-dominated field — in this case, the natural sciences in a Victorian-esque society. There’s never any question that she will survive all her adventures, or that she will attain success in her study of dragons. As well, Isabella’s voice drew me in right away, so that I care not just about her but also about her passion for studying dragons.
Another aspect of the series that I appreciate is the depiction of the dragons themselves. More often than not, dragons in fantasy fit into a very particular model of sentience, within a small range of variation — they speak human languages, build human-like societies, display human-level intelligence. In contrast, the dragons that Lady Trent studies are animals. Intelligent animals, to be certain, that seem to build their own societies and have fascinating ways of interacting with their world. But they do not speak, or even seem to interact with humans at all. There are no tame dragons in this world, and almost none even in captivity. Also, there have so far been no indications that the dragons in Lady Trent’s world are at all magical. Mysterious, yes, and poorly understood. But up to this point, all of their abilities and history are perfectly explainable using the tenets of the natural sciences. Brennan relies on the mysteries of nature and ancient cultures to provoke a sense of wonder in the world, and it works perfectly for me.
I also enjoy the setting. Lady Trent lives on a world very much like our Earth; her manner and backstory is based on an English lady of the Victorian Age, and it’s clear how Earth’s history, geography, and culture have influenced the worldbuilding. But it’s also different enough that Brennan can take liberties, and not in ways that I find appropriative or overly exoticising. (Then again, I am an American white lady, so there are surely nuances I could be missing!) There also are a number of characters of color and some non-traditional treatment of gender — not to mention the ways in which Isabella herself refuses to conform to the gender norms of her society, because behaving like a proper Victorian lady would be inconvenient to her research. Add to this her strong, balanced friendship with her research partner, Tom, and some appealing romances, and you get one of my favorite series of all time.
Finally, I can’t talk about these books without mentioning the illustrations. As a natural historian, Lady Trent often sketches and draws her subjects, and many of these drawings — of dragons, other related creatures, and landscapes — are included in the books. The illustrations by Todd Lockwood help the stories, the dragons, and Lady Trent herself all come alive. This is one of the few series I always buy in hardback, because the physical books themselves add to the feeling of reading the memoirs of a 19th-century naturalist and adventurer, from the cover design to the heavy paper to the font choice. For me, the experience would not be at all the same with an e-book, or even a paperback.
The series will wrap up last year with the fifth and final book. Although a part of me is sorry that it’s almost over, mostly I can’t wait to discover where Lady Trent’s adventures will take her in the end, and to see how all the mysteries that Brennan has been setting up will be resolved. Wherever Isabella goes next, it’s been a marvelous journey, and it was, and is, a privilege to be along for the ride.
Thank you, KJ!