With Voyage of the Basilisk, the third volume of her Memoirs of Lady Trent series, Marie Brennan takes us to new lands in search of new species of dragon. Isabella, several years widowed and the mother of a nine-year-old son, is a dragon naturalist and pioneering natural philosopher in a world similar to our own in the Victorian period, from a nation with resemblances to Victorian Britain: while (some) women are beginning to set themselves against the social and cultural forces that would prefer to confine them to hearth and home, the role of adventurous scientist is still one that only the most strong-minded of gentlewomen would ever take up.
No one could ever accuse Isabella Camherst of lacking determination. Her latest adventure takes her on a long voyage, even further from home than ever before, to eventually conduct research among volcanically active archipelagos that resemble our own 19th century Pacific and South East Asian island chains—down to the presence of competing colonial and local expansionist interests. Once again, Isabella’s scientific curiosity leads her into dangerous territory, on the slopes of an active volcano. And once again she finds herself playing an active part in politically significant events.
Voyage of the Basilisk’s title recalls The Voyage of the Beagle, the work that first brought Charles Darwin to the attention of the reading public—a work which is as much travel memoir as scientific field journal. With this volume of the Memoirs of Lady Trent, Brennan has written another novel that is as much travelogue as it is a fantasy of scientific discovery. Travel and science: two great tastes that taste great together.
While travelogue has long been a part of fantasy—from J.R.R. Tolkien to Jacqueline Carey—the sense of scientific discovery as a positive good, and idea of taking joy in knowledge for the sake of knowledge, learning how the world fits together, is far rarer. It’s a pervasive undercurrent in the fantasies of Barbara Hambly, and comes to the fore in a handful of other writers’ works, but in many ways fantasy as a genre is deeply suspicious of any idea of scientific development. This makes Brennan’s Lady Trent books rather subversive of the genre’s mores.
Not that Brennan casts scientific “progress” as an unmitigated good: far from it, when one of the ongoing threads throughout the series is the problem posed by the military and commercial advantages of preserved dragon bone as a material, which could lead to the extinction of dragon-kind. (Isabella is, understandably, deeply opposed to this.) But the idea of learning for learning’s sake, knowledge as an end in itself rather than as means, is one of the core themes of this series, and a theme with which I’m in an awful lot of sympathy.
The Lady Trent books are subversive in more ways than this one. It is rare we see a mother having adventures by choice with her child or children in tow; rare that the problems of parenthood are given much weight. Often, in fantasy novels, motherhood is used as an excuse to sideline characters, to have them retire from active duty. Not so with Isabella, for whom motherhood is a logistical challenge and her son another person to worry about, but in no wise a reason to stay home and tend her knitting—even if most of the rest of her society thinks that is exactly what she should do.
As ever, the greatest appeal of a Memoir of Lady Trent is the voice of Lady Trent herself, telling the tale in retrospect from the vantage of more years and experience than her younger self possessed. Her dry wit, compassion, and perspective highlights Isabella’s broad-mindedness and ethical principles, and her tendency to surround herself with interesting people. Tom Wilker returns again, but we’re also treated to new characters in the form of nine-year-old Jake; Abigail Carew, Jake’s governess; Suhail, an archaeologist possessed of a diving bell and a passion for Draconean ruins—both of which he finds outlet for in Isabella’s company—the ship’s captain Dione Aekinitos; and some of the inhabitants of the Keongan islands, where Isabella fetches up after a storm.
Brennan has put together a novel that is easy to read and difficult to put down: from encounters with aggressive sea-serpents to soldiers, and from battling storms at sea to aerial flights in the cause of bringing rescue to a princess—and her captors. I really enjoyed this book, and if you enjoyed the previous entries in this series, I can pretty much guarantee you’ll enjoy this one. If you haven’t yet read one of the Memoirs of Lady Trent—you could probably start here and still appreciate the ride, but you’ll have more fun if you’ve read the previous books as well.