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“The Voyage of the Basilisk” by Marie Brennan

The third volume in Marie Brennan’s Memoirs of Lady Trent series takes its heroine on an ocean voyage around the world to study dragons. In the service of her ambitious project to assemble a definitive taxonomy of dragons, Isabella Camherst endures a devastating storm, makes a momentous archaeological discovery, and finds herself in the middle of an incipient war.

As in the previous installments, Brennan constructs interesting, detailed cultures to inhabit her world. Like the Vystrani and Bayembe, the Keongans have a fully realized society, with its own politics, traditions, and spiritual customs. Not only is this distinct from the culture Isabella’s used to, it’s different from those of the other societies introduced in this and previous books. Brennan’s writing gives the impression of a world that, like our own, is vast and filled with a wide array of people who have different perspectives on their surroundings.

In her travels, Isabella is aided by a number of interesting characters. In particular, I hope to see the gruff but adventurous sea-captain Aekinitos and the archaeologist Suhail in future books. (I have particular hopes for Suhail, since he’s established to be Akhian, and the next book is set in Akhia.) I also liked Heali’i, who becomes Isabella’s guide to Keongan culture. Although I was eager to see what Isabella’s next destination would be, I was also sad to see her leave the Keongans behind, and a large part of that was because of Heali’i’s character.

Finally, of course, there are the dragons. Most of the dragons that appear in this book are sea serpents, and the question of whether they even count as “true” dragons is discussed. This book also continues the plot thread of the ancient Draconeans and their relationship to dragons. The discoveries Isabella makes here seem to be laying the groundwork for more revelations in the last two books of the series, and I’m looking forward to seeing where they lead.

“The Tropic of Serpents” by Marie Brennan

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Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons introduced us to Isabella, a woman living in a society that resembles Victorian England and who rises to become the world’s premier expert on dragons. The Tropic of Serpents broadens this setting, taking the reader to new lands inhabited by new cultures of humans and new species of dragons. And as in the first installment, it’s not clear which one is more dangerous.

The characters spend much of this book in a tropical swamp—an uncomfortable and often dangerous environment, but one also bursting with life. Brennan vividly renders this setting with a host of detailed descriptions. She brings to bear not only visual imagery, but auditory, olfactory, and tactile details as well. Her writing style in these passages creates a wonderful sense of immersion for the reader.

The Tropic of Serpents also deepens the relationships between the characters. Isabella and Tom Wilker got off on the wrong foot in the previous book. While they don’t start off actively antagonistic here, there are still underlying conflicts and resentments that take time to work through. We also see Isabella developing a closer friendship with Natalie.

The end of the novel gives a tantalizing hint of where the next book, The Voyage of the Basilisk, might take us. I’m looking forward to the journey!

“A Natural History of Dragons” by Marie Brennan

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Marie Brennan’s Memoirs of Lady Trent series follows Isabella, a woman who defies the gender roles of her society to become the setting’s premier dragon naturalist. The first book in the series, A Natural History of Dragons, chronicles her youth, her marriage, and her first expedition to study dragons in their natural habitat.

Brennan deftly balances character development, setting details, and plot advancement. As Isabella matures and expands her researches, the reader learns more about the world of the books and the place of dragons in that world. Nor is the book devoid of action: a near-fatal dragon attack, a kidnapping, and a confrontation with a murderer all feature in the narrative.

While there are hints of future events throughout the book, the ending provides a satisfying resolution. The engaging story is likely to draw readers into the rest of the series, but Brennan doesn’t rely on a cheap cliffhanger to make people buy Book #2.

One feature that might make readers inclined to pick up a hard copy rather than an electronic edition is the excellent artwork. Drawings of dragons, locations, and characters are scattered through the book. The art style may be familiar to Dungeons and Dragons players, since the artist, Todd Lockwood, did some of the illustrations for the 3.5 Edition Monster Manual.