owlmoose: (lady business - kj)
KJ ([personal profile] owlmoose) wrote in [community profile] ladybusiness2017-05-12 04:02 pm
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The Wonders of Scientific Adventure: Within the Sanctuary of Wings, the Fifth Lady Trent Book

As anyone knows who gets me started on the subject, my favorite book series of the last few years is the Memoirs of Lady Trent series by Marie Brennan. The fifth and final book in the main series, Within the Sanctuary of Wings, was recently released, and it more than lives up to the promise of its predecessors -- in fact, it closes out Isabella's story in a brilliant way that I could have never have imagined.

Back in January, I wrote a non-spoilery introduction to Lady Trent for The Book Smugglers, as part of their annual Smugglivus series. So if you aren't familiar with the books and would like to learn more without any spoilers, I recommend that you read that article. Here, I want to go into a little more spoilery detail, so caution: spoilers for the series ahead! I promise all will be well-marked.

I picked up the first book in this series, The Natural History of Dragons, on a bit of a whim. I had read some of Marie Brennan's Onyx Court books, but I was more a fan of her public persona than her writing; in particular, she's a regular attendee and panelist at FogCon, my local literary SFF convention, and I always enjoy her panels. I'm pretty sure, actually, that I saw the book in the FogCon dealers room and bought it there. I like Marie Brennan, and I like dragons, so the combination was hard to resist. To say that I fell in love immediately might be an overstatement, but I enjoyed the book well enough to give the book five stars on GoodReads, and I bought the second volume in hardback. As the series continued, I found that each book leveled up in terms of storytelling and intrigue, building on what came before as the key incidents that bookmark Isabella's life are revealed, one by one, and I was drawn completely in.

Because the stories are told in the form of a memoir -- an older Lady Trent looking back on her life -- you know that she will attain success in her chosen field of naturalism, and that she gained her fame by making key discoveries about the biology of dragons, and about the ancient Draconic civilization. These achievements are revealed slowly throughout the books, and feel true to the actual process of scientific and archaeological discovery: one discovery builds on the next, setbacks are suffered, breakthroughs are made, societal impacts are felt.

Isabella, too, grows and changes through her experiences, from a sheltered noblewoman to a world traveler, becoming more welcoming of differences in other cultures and less colonialist in her attitudes. A major theme of these stories is Isabella's struggle to be recognized for her work as a woman in a sexist society, and her research partner Tom Wilker is similarly limited by his lower-class background. Although the first couple of books have an unfortunate tendency for Isabella to think of herself as being "not like those other women", that attitude lessens as she matures, and we see her reaching out to other women, supporting them and working toward greater acceptance in the scientific community of all people.

Spoilers for books 1-4 start here!

Up to now, In the Labyrinth of Drakes has been my most loved book in the series -- it was an easy pick for my favorite book of 2016 -- because it shows Isabella in her mature form as a scientist: fighting for a plum posting in a dragon-breeding facility, conducting experiments, working in a laboratory setting rather than exploring the world, deepening her partnerships with her Tom and her friend, the archaeologist Suhail, who she met during her travels in The Voyage of the Basilisk. I was thrilled to see this latter relationship deepen into a romance, and even more excited when they married at the end of the book. But what probably made me the happiest was learning how Isabella gained her title: not by marrying into nobility, but having been granted it in her own right in recognition of the discoveries she made in this fourth book.

By the time of this fifth and final book, we know many of Lady Trent's achievements and their ripple effects, but it's always been clear that one major discovery awaits her, and it's a bombshell. I knew it had to be something big, but exactly what she finds is something I never would have imagined.

Spoilers for Book 5 follow. The people of Isabella's world had always assumed that the ancient Draconians were human, and that their civilization had died out long ago. Both assumptions were incorrect: the Draconians were humanoid dragons,* and a Draconian community still lives in secret, sequestering themselves from humanity in a remote mountain area. This is the titular Sanctuary of Wings, which Isabella discovers when she investigates reports of the remains of a new kind of dragon -- remains that turn out to belong to two modern Draconians. She spends most of the book alone with a trio of Draconians, learning their language and culture and planning a way to reveal their existence to the world. Because that reveal's time is coming, whether the Draconians like it or not, thanks to the development of air travel (a change that Isabella helped enable by discovering the secret to preserving dragonbone). It's not easy though, because the Draconians have good reason to hate and fear humanity, and Isabella is not, by her nature, a diplomat. But I found the resolution compelling and believable, and it brings the story of Isabella and her adventures to a wonderful conclusion.

All spoilers end here!

I was fortunate enough to attend Brennan's book launch event at Borderlands Books a couple of weeks ago (with [personal profile] forestofglory, Lady Business contributor and excellent literary event companion!), and she announced that her next book would be set in Lady Trent's world, some years later. Although not a continuation of Isabella's story (one of the protagonists is her granddaughter), it sounds like it will build even more on the history of Draconic civilization, and I could not be more excited. If the discoveries that story has in store are even half as compelling as those housed in Within the Sanctuary of Wings, I will be satisfied.

*Art link via iO9, which shares all of Todd Lockwood's fabulous artwork from this book. But beware, there are MAJOR spoilers in there.