“Let it never be said that I court my own death without proper planning” (Voyage of the Basilisk, p. 261).
Intrepid dragon naturalist Isabella, Lady Trent, is back with further volumes of her memoirs, following A Natural History of Dragons with The Tropic of Serpents (2014) and Voyage of the Basilisk (2015). Set approximately three years after the subdued end of the first volume, The Tropic of Serpents sees the widowed Isabella voyaging to the tropical land of Eriga in quest for knowledge of its savannah dragons and swamp drakes; in Voyage of the Basilisk, she recounts at last the unexpurgated story of her voyage around the world in search of sea serpents and other draconic species six years later. No matter where she goes, Isabella gets more than she bargained for, unthinkingly stirs up scandal, and makes important draconic discoveries, all of which is nothing less than her devoted readers have come to expect.
A Natural History of Dragons was a breath of fresh air in the fantasy genre, its foundation in natural science and a finely honed sense of gender and class politics balanced against Isabella’s obsession with dragons, some of the best-loved creatures in the genre, and her description of their natural environment. Both The Tropic of Serpents and Voyage of the Basilisk expand upon these strengths while giving Isabella greater scope to spread her wings, as it were, and act independently in society after her husband’s death at the end of the first volume. In both books, and The Tropic of Serpents in particular, Marie Brennan makes some moves that are subtle but definitely subversive of some well-worn fantasy tropes; both she and Isabella pay their readers the compliment of taking their intelligence seriously.
One such delightfully subversive thing is that the books are (at times subtly, and at times less so) decidedly anti-imperial. It’s self-evident that Isabella’s home country of Scirland is based on Victorian Britain—albeit a generalized Victorian Britain that mixes various decades with some decidedly steampunk features, an obviously Jewish mainstream religion, and a much less established imperial sphere. Furthermore, with Isabella’s background and reckless tendencies, it’s easy to read her as Indiana Jones or Gertrude Bell or T. E. Lawrence, enthusiastic agents of empire and players of the so-called Great Game, just as in Voyage of the Basilisk she is clearly sailing a course first set by Charles Darwin. But in The Tropic of Serpents, which is set in an analog for West Africa, it’s highly refreshing to watch Isabella follow in the footsteps of people like David Livingstone, Joseph Conrad, and Mary Kingsley, but to walk widdershins to the actual blood-soaked imperial history of West Africa in our world's nineteenth century—and take an almost wholly different tack to her non-fiction counterparts. With the exception of Kingsley, who was famous in her day for her willingness to accept the African societies she encountered on their own terms (and infamous for her anti-missionary stance), Isabella’s avowedly pragmatic approach of working with the people and societies she finds, rather than attempting to impose her own way of thinking and doing things, is radical. And in the way of a well-constructed narrative, her approach eventually nets her some astonishing results in the field of draconic natural history and also leads her to act entirely against her country’s burgeoning imperial (which is to say, economic and expansionist) interests, because dragons.
Though it may sound odd at first (wrong century, wrong gender, wrong academic field), the Indiana Jones's comparison is in some ways hilariously apt. Although Isabella’s signature item of clothing is trousers rather than a fedora and bullwhip, she has a similar gift for taking the most reckless option in any given situation, even as her growing wisdom—at the beginning of the second book, she is still only twenty-four—leads her to calculate her options more precisely every time. Written as they are by Isabella in her (presumably august) old age, the tone of the memoirs sometimes obscures this aspect of her character, but the image of the young widow naturalist working with her nobly born engineer lady’s companion and up-from-the-coal-fields fellow scientist to construct a hang-glider out of dragon’s bones before hang-gliding has been properly invented, the better to soar over a mammoth waterfall, should lay any question about the extent of her “deranged practicality,” as she calls it, to rest. In Voyage of the Basilisk she even takes up riding sea serpents—while wearing trousers, of course.
Brennan’s background in anthropology is fairly well-known, but another thing that marks The Tropic of Serpents and Voyage of the Basilisk as improvements on the (to be sure, very good) A Natural History of Dragons is the way that the landscape of the swampy jungle of Mouleen in the second book and the island society of Keonga in the third, and their peoples, are both finely drawn and inextricably linked to each other and to the dragons that it is Isabella’s goal to study. While the natural landscapes and people of Vystrana were finely drawn in the first book, the denouement of Isabella’s adventures there ultimately revolved around external rather than local machinations, making the natural environment seem more like a stage populated by archetypal peasants, albeit detectably sceptical ones. But Isabella is a more mature person now, and Brennan’s storytelling has matured along with her, with the result that both Tropic and Voyage depend for their development and resolution on Isabella’s willingness to assimilate into the local societies and environments. Only by coming to a better understanding of and increased respect for the Moulish and the ways in which their society is adapted to their environment can Isabella accomplish her research goals, and the descriptions of their jungle home itself are wonderfully vivid, just as her Moulish companions are also fully rendered as people whose worldview makes eminent sense in their peculiar and in fact mostly inhospitable jungle home (a far cry from the literally voiceless residents of the Congo in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness). Similar anthropological care is taken with respect to the people of Keonga, although Isabella is believably both better and less able to fit herself into their paradigms. Not all of her choices end in triumph.
Another reason Lady Trent’s adventures put me in mind of Indiana Jones is the way in which Isabella finds herself on the trail not just of dragons, but of lost civilizations—in particular, that of the Draconeans, who reminded me at the beginning of ancient Rome but who by the end of the third book are much more reminiscent of the legendary saurian civilization of James Gurney’s Dinotopia books. Like the ancient Dinotopians, the Draconeans of Isabella’s world apparently possessed a world-spanning civilization of high technological achievement and close relationship with dragons, and Isabella’s attempts to understand the dragons of her day gradually lead her to ever more momentous discoveries about those vanished ancients. Like Indiana Jones, Isabella is in pursuit of treasure, but for her and her companions, that treasure is knowledge: she has little interest in artifacts for their own sake—she keeps a fortune in firestone in a spare hat box rather than deal with inconvenient questions about its origins—and chooses her companions accordingly; the archaeologist Suhail, with whom she forms a scandalously close association over the course of her sea voyages, is far more in the mold of modern archaeological methodology than he is of the pioneering heroes who were Indiana Jones’ teachers, the Schliemanns, Evanses, and Carters of the field.
Isabella’s growing awareness that science is a human, social pursuit, with all the politics that that entails—fueled by the times in which her attitude leads her into open conflict with the political authorities of her own and other countries—is matched by Brennan’s keen eye for how science works at the human level. Her methods may be modern, but Isabella is by no means infallible, and she is not above advancing a wrong hypothesis from time to time; although she pays a higher price than she otherwise would for it, being a woman, she also realizes and publicly corrects her own errors, which is a central part of the practice of science that is rarely depicted in genre fiction. Another of the books’ overarching concerns is Isabella’s quest to develop an artificial substitute for preserved dragon bone: these are a tempting natural substitute for iron in her metal-poor world, and her caution about releasing the results of her research grows along with the threat to dragons. By the third book Isabella begins encountering evidence of mass draconic slaughter, raising the specter of their being hunted to the brink of extinction or beyond, not unlike whales in our nineteenth century.
Brennan’s anthropological gaze is perceptible not just in terms of the people Isabella meets during her journeys but also in her relationships with the people she brings with her. As much as I liked Natalie Oscott, Isabella’s lady’s companion whose ambition in life is to get a job as an engineer—she runs away from and is disowned by her aristocratic family in order to join Isabella on her expedition—I appreciated the nuances of Isabella’s prickly relationship with her colleague Thomas Wilker even more. Readers of the first volume will remember Wilker as a devoted skeptic of Isabella’s intellectual qualifications to join the previous expedition; although those concerns were laid to rest in the course of that journey, at the beginning of the next book they are still as likely to see each other as potential rivals than as colleagues, for each on some level resents the other for their potential privileges relative to their own disadvantages. By virtue of her husband’s death, Isabella is independently wealthy, and her social rank is such that she circulates comfortably among Scirland’s minor nobility as well as the respectably landed middle classes; Tom Wilker, by contrast, is a low-class upstart from the coalfields who has advanced only through upper-class patronage and sheer intellectual brilliance—but he is a man, and that grants him some freedoms Isabella will simply never have. Even their mutual interest in challenging the monied and patriarchal structures that deny both of them access to scientific recognition and prestige is not enough to fully overcome the social barriers of class and gender between them, just as the event that does eventually transform them into friends and colleagues who fully trust each other is an impressive feat of narrative legerdemain on Brennan’s part. Like just about everything else in the novel, it accomplishes at least three or four purposes at once.
One of those purposes is quite clearly mixing up the rather staid narratives of actual nineteenth century explorers and naturalists of our world with the pulp serials popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century across comic books, adventure novels, and radio plays, to name just a few. As my frequent references to Indiana Jones (himself an homage to those 1930s pulps) indicate, Isabella’s memoirs are clearly a take-off on that genre, mixing it up by adding dragons and a female protagonist, and giving characters of color voices and agency in the plots. In these books Brennan has, it seems, pushed the genre tropes of pulp to what we might call their postcolonial limits; although the books are indeed radical in terms of the fantasy genre in some respects, there’s a limit to how radical they can be before they’re no longer having fun with transforming tropes but simply transcending them. The interesting, sceptical, and often long-suffering women Isabella meets on her journey—Dagmara in Vystrana, Galinke and Akinimanbi in Bayembe, Heali'i in Keonga—could not be the protagonists of these stories because their stories would simply not have a recognizably similar shape, just as Scirland, however clipped its wings are compared to the actual British Empire, must have certain minimum economic and political characteristics for Isabella to act and react against. Watching Brennan change so much within these familiar historical and genre paradigms is one of the series’s pleasures, but in the same way that the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house, these novels do inevitably share a certain amount of DNA with older, much more problematic and imperialist narratives. Those searching for the total overthrow of such paradigms in fantasy will have to look elsewhere.
Within the series’s circumscribed but wide ambit, however, there’s quite a lot of fun to be had. Indeed, although Lady Trent’s memoirs aren’t long, they’re anything but slight; each packs a great deal of complexity into the narrative while avoiding the pitfall of attempting to imitate the discursive length of their inspirations such as Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle. The fact that the books are at heart about a scientist doing science—albeit in a fantasy world that contains dragons—is another reason to love them. In a genre still rife with knee-jerk monarchism and the impulse to default to Ye Olde “European” Pseudo-Medieval Times as an excuse for worldbuilding, Isabella’s decidedly nineteenth-century perspective demonstrates perfectly that fantasy as a genre is no more or less inherently conservative than science fiction, and that it can and does comfortably accommodate more rational, modern, and democratic stories and viewpoints within its bounds.
Some of my favorite moments in the books are grace notes compared with the previous remarks—the steampunk mobility devices the king of Yembe uses, the bonepunk flying machines of the third book, the descriptions of food and clothing, Isabella’s relationship with her son Jake, to say nothing of Todd Lockwood’s phenomenal accompanying illustrations and covers—but it is these notes, of course, that make the books sing. Lady Trent is a force to be reckoned with, and I eagerly await the next installment of her fascinating life story.
Electra Pritchett lives in Tokyo, where she splits her time between reading, research, and her obsession with birds and parfait. She blogs at electra.dreamwidth.org.