I have a number of friends who refuse to begin reading a series until it’s completed. Though I don’t share their compunction, I get it: it’s a total drag to get x number of books into a series and be left hanging, whether by regular intervals between books, delays due to the vagaries of writing schedules, or, heaven forbid, authorial death. Such completists have no more reason to eschew the Memoirs of Lady Trent novels by Marie Brennan now— yesterday saw the publication of Within the Sanctuary of Wings, the series’ fifth and final volume. And what a finale it is.
Rather than regurgitate a series of plot points—many of which would contain spoilers for the earlier books—I’m going to provide the recalcitrant reader with five very excellent reasons to dive into the life of Isabella Camherst, Lady Trent, and her life’s work documenting the natural history of dragons.
Lady Trent herself!
One of the most enjoyable aspects of the series is the wry, retrospective voice of our narrator. Though the novels take place over 50 long years, cataloguing the events between Isabella’s early life and her most important and world-shaking discovery, they are written from the perspective of a comfortably retired Lady Trent. She’s at ease in her own skin, almost offhandedly referencing major scientific breakthroughs like no big. While the most ready adjective for the younger Isabella is “indefatigable,” the Isabella the senior wrings much humor out of the agonies and missteps of her earlier escapades. She is a most engaging persona to spend five books’ time with.
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In Lady Trent’s steampunky alt-Victorian world, dragons are not the smoking, riddling creatures of folkloric sagas and Tolkien, but natural, biological creatures, with a history and evolution like any other mundane species. They’re spread out across the globe, from the dragons found in the remote mountains of Vystrana in A Natural History of Dragons, to the sea serpents found in The Voyage of the Basilisk, and the jungle-bound swamp-wyrms of The Tropic of Serpents. The driving force of the novels is Isabella’s profound fascination and affection for all things draconic. As a reader, I was right there with her. Though these creatures may not be magical, precisely, there is magic in the profound pleasure of discovery and inquiry that informs Lady Trent’s chosen profession.
Though the aims of science may be apolitical, the actual practice of it is not, both in our world, and in Lady Trent’s. Though Isabella is of the right class to join her country of Scirland’s Philosophers’ Colloquium, she’s the wrong gender. In contrast, her long-time collaborator Tom Wilker is the right gender, but wrong class. Together, they try to patchwork enough respectability to accomplish their important work, with occasionally mixed results. Isabella cuts a controversial figure throughout her life, though she does nothing more scandalous than pursue the science of dragons. But science is at the heart of the entire series, a boots-on-the-ground exploration of the wonders of the natural world, tempered with the constrictions of the human one.
In addition to the personal politics of Isabella and Tom’s inquiry into dragons, several of their scientific discoveries (especially relating to the chemistry of dragon bones) could cataclysmically alter geopolitical power. At the beginning of In the Sanctuary of Wings, Thu Phim-lat, a member of a rebel faction in his country of Yelang, comes to Scirland to tell Isabella of a heretofore unknown dragon species found above the snow line of his country. Isabella’s native Scirland is in a cold war of sorts with the expansionist Yelang, making this expedition one of her most difficult yet, from several quarters. Reader, she goes anyway. Whatever political machinations we’ve seen so far, what she finds in Yelang has the potential to shift not only national borders, but larger questions of humanity’s place in the world. That said, the story of this final novel is also fiercely personal, centered on Isabella’s personal experiences, and viewed through her unique lens.
A thread running through the series has been Isabella’s research into the lost civilization of the Draconeans, a seemingly sentient bipedal dragon species who left artefacts of their culture all over the world. In addition to Tom Wilker, Isabella has long worked with the archaeologist Suhail, an Akhadian nobleman whose interest in the language and culture of the Draconeans dovetails nicely with Isabella’s interest in dragons. (An exploration of the dragons of his home country can be found In the Labyrinth of Drakes.) The archaeological sites and dragon habitats tend to be one in the same. In this final novel, Brennan digs down into history of the Draconeans, and it’s a most satisfying and intricate reveal.
So there you have it: five reasons, of so many more. Come and meet Lady Trent, her collaborators and friends, far lands and home country. Come and meet her dragons, as they soar and crawl and dive deep.