I just finished the third Memoirs of Lady Trent novel and am just starting to dig into the fourth and most recent. I’ve loved this series from the beginning though, so I couldn’t wait to review it for Her Story Arc.
The series follows Isabella, the future Lady Trent. Growing up in an alternate universe very similar to our 19th century Earth, Isabella dreams of becoming a dragon naturalist. In her world, dragons are wild animals, ranging from small, firefly-like sparklings to the huge sea serpents of the arctic. Just like our 1800’s, the scientific world is growing rapidly, aided by new technology. A youthful obsession slowly becomes Isabella’s career as she finds ways to travel the world studying dragons, though the path is not easy. Like our world, women are expected to be satisfied as wives and mothers and no more. Isabella, however, has other plans.
Now let’s see how the series stands up to the Scale:
Not offensive to women = 1/1 pts
Features a woman as the main protagonist and/or supporting character = 2/2 pts
Passes the Bechdel Test = 3/3 pts
I’m reviewing the series as a whole, so that makes these first sections easier to pass, which the series does. The main character is Isabella, aka Lady Trent. The novels are told in first person as Lady Trent looks back over her adventurous life. There are many supporting women characters and the series passes the Bechdel test, as well as similar tests for conversations between characters of color. There are supporting LGBT characters in every novel, though their roles are smaller.
Artistic and/or entertaining = 4/4 pts
These books are SO fun… for a certain kind of reader. Marie Brennan is not inclined to simplify her worldbuilding. For example, in Voyage of the Basilisk, Isabella’s ship is wrecked on Keonga, a lesser island in the Keongan Islands, which is part of the Puian/Melatan archipelago in the Broken Sea, which borders Dajin, a territory of the Yelang Empire. Got all of that? Because Brennan will not slow down, and you’ll need to remember it when the complex politics of the region start to invade Isabella’s scientific voyage around the world. To me, this level of detail makes for rich reading, especially when the main character is a scientist. For her part, Isabella likes to go into great detail on dragon anatomy, habitat, temperament, etc.
It’s not for everyone, but luckily all the novels do have their share of action. Whether it’s running into wild dragons or fielding political machinations, Brennan’s clever twists keep Isabella busy and the reader running to catch up.
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Above and beyond general media = 5/5 pts
The series easily passes this section as well, in every novel. With Brennan’s level of detail, it’s impossible not to have a wide array of women characters, and no two are alike. The topic of gender is consistent throughout the books. In her 1800’s England-analogue, the country of Scirland, Isabella is looked down on as a woman with scientific ambitions. She works hard to gain respect for her work. This woman-proves-herself-in-patriarchal-world storyline has played out in many other books, to the point where I was at first wary of the series, as I was tired of the trope (I prefer to read books with, shockingly, no patriarchy at all), but Brennan does not let her character fall into the one-dimensional “strong woman” trope. Isabella struggles with self-acceptance in each of the books. The third book takes on the issue in a funny way, but though the situation is bizarre, it helps Isabella work through her lingering reservations. She doesn’t fit into the small parameters of womanhood set by her society, and the issues coming from that aren’t solved in a single book, but they are tackled in a nuanced way.
The series also addresses colonial issues with a delicate touch. In the second novel the political resolution, though assisted by Isabella, is mostly in the hands of side Africa-analogue characters. Native peoples of the countries she visits have complex personalities, motivations, and desires. They take action and are fully involved in their countries and states, and Brennan never paints them as impotent or needing her white main character to save them. In fact, the larger political sphere is usually above Isabella’s head, or at least she tries to keep it that way.
If you think you might like this series, you can get your feet wet with a spoiler-free super short story, From the Editorial Page of the Falchester Weekly Review, available for free at Tor.com.
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