Science and Politics: Within the Sanctuary of Wings by Marie Brennan

Within the Sanctuary of Wings is the fifth and final novel in Marie Brennan’s acclaimed Memoirs of Lady Trent series, following last year’s Labyrinth of Drakes. And if you thought Labyrinth of Drakes was good, Within the Sanctuary of Wings is a pure treat: I think I can say that at least as far as I’m concerned, Brennan definitely saved the best till last.

This review will of necessity contain spoilers for the series—if you haven’t tried the first book yet, what’s keeping you?—and for Within the Sanctuary of Wings itself. A striking revelation takes place in the middle of the narrative, and since it is central to the story, I’ll be talking about it. With that caveat, onwards!

As Within the Sanctuary of Wings opens, Lady Isabella Trent is happily married to her Akhian nobleman, the linguist and archaeologist Suhail. His work on deciphering the Draconean language has progressed to no small acclaim, but Isabella has begun to feel a little… unchallenged in her own labours. Then a Yelangese man (from a rebel faction in that country, whose government is engaged in a skirmishing war with Isabella’s native Scirling) causes a small stir at one of Suhail’s public lectures. He’s looking for Isabella: he wants her influence to bring her government to support his faction, and in return he offers her his notes on a new type of dragon, whose remains he came across while scouting for a pass in the high peaks of the Mrtyahaima mountains. Faced with the possibility of a wholly new, heretofore unknown to science dragon, Isabella is determined to investigate the area—all the more so as her informant believes he saw a second draconic corpse preserved above the permanent snowline.

It’s a Lady Trent memoir. Of course she goes to the dangerous and inaccessible remote location in the pursuit of science. A large part of the charm of Brennan’s Lady Trent memoirs has been their joy in the scientific method and the search for knowledge for its own sake, as a goal in its own right. Isabella’s wry, retrospective voice with its acknowledgement that she may not be entirely rational in her pursuit of her passion—the study of dragons—is well suited to style of her scientific travelogue. No small amount of the appeal of the Memoirs of Lady Trent is seeing Isabella encounter new places, new cultures, new obstacles to the pursuit of pure science, and new people, as she goes about making new discoveries in draconology. And more-or-less accidentally end up playing a pivotal role in international politics…

Here are where the spoilers really start.

The new dragon in the ice of the Mrtyahaima mountains is not, actually, a dragon. It is a Draconean, a member of a civilisation whose rulers fell a very long time ago. When an avalanche separates Isabella from her companions and cuts her off from the rest of the world, she discovers that the Draconeans are not quite all gone: in a high and isolated valley, their last remnants live a marginal and largely pastoral life. Injured, unable to speak her rescuers’ language, Isabella must spend the winter learning to communicate and to understand her rescuers’ society if she is ever to have any hope of going home—and perhaps more important for Isabella, understanding how they are the way they are. For the Draconeans are not just a remnant of an ancient civilisation. They’re draconic people.

I’m always interested in fish-out-of-water stories, where someone has to learn to get along in a really new environment—a really new culture. Isabella is definitely a fish out of water here, but observing everything with a keenly analytical eye. Much of the narrative feels almost like fictional anthropology: Brennan has a knack for fitting together fictional cultures in ways that seem natural and organic and internally coherent, but with enough internal division and conflict to feel textured and real. Isabella needs to convince an isolationist society to let her leave. And there are plenty of complications: the Draconeans’ history records that humans murdered their eggs and tried to exterminate them as a people, while Isabella is uncomfortably aware that thanks to the Aerial War between her homeland and Yelang, the Draconeans’ isolation is unlikely to last much longer, and if they do let her go, it will be her responsibility to do what she can to manage their reintroduction to the rest of the world so that humans are less inclined to murder them.

In the event, things are not nearly as carefully managed as Isabella might have hoped…

Within the Sanctuary of Wings is a fitting capstone to the Memoirs of Lady Trent series. Well-paced, emotionally engaging, delighting in the complications of science and intercultural diplomacy—and as always, full of interesting characters —and told in Isabella’s charming retrospective voice, it’s a fine achievement. I really enjoyed it. I really recommend it to fans of the series. And I really recommend the series as a whole.

Plus, you know. This one has avalanches and ice-climbing. It’s cool. In many senses of the word.

Within the Sanctuary of Wings is available April 25th from Tor Books.
Read an excerpt from the novel here on Tor.com.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Find her at her blog. Or her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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