Series Review: The Memoirs of Lady Trent

a natural history of dragons lady trentA Natural History of Dragons / The Tropic of Serpents / Voyage of the Basilisk / In The Labyrinth of Drakes / Within the Sanctuary of Wings
by Marie Brennan
Fictional Memoirs
300-350 pages each
Published 2013 / 2014 / 2015 / 2016 / 2017

I had been drooling over this series for quite some time. Every time I went to my local game store, I’d paw through their small fiction bookshelf, and these were always on it. I finally found the first four all at once at the library, and seized the chance. (I had to request the fifth.) I did not regret it. These are fantastic.

tropic of serpents lady trentThe Memoirs of Lady Trent, as one can expect, are told from the viewpoint of Isabella Camherst, who becomes Lady Trent partway through the books. (But since they are written as her memoirs, she is “remembering” back to her adventures before she became part of the peerage.) Lady Trent’s world is analogous to our own Victorian age, except they have dragons, and she is fascinated by them. In the first book, she maneuvers her husband, also an amateur scholar of dragons, into joining an expedition to go study mountain drakes, and manages to get herself brought along. That begins her career.

The representation in these books is excellent for the time period they are based on! In the second book we get an asexual character, who turns into a side character for much of the rest of the series. (In figuring herself out, she mentions she had also tried the affections of women before realizing she didn’t want that, either.) In the third we get a culture with a third gender, and mention from Lady Trent of men who love men back home.

lady trent voyage of the basiliskI actually quite enjoyed how these books treated other cultures. We see a lot of effects from Scirling (British) colonialism, but Lady Trent herself sees other cultures as interesting things to study and become part of temporarily, not as “savages” that need to be “civilized” (or just used) as so many Victorian-age naturalists did. (And, indeed, how the Scirling military sees them.) Her ultimate goal is always the dragons, but if that means becoming part of a jungle or island tribe, and tending camp and hunting and traveling as the villagers do, then that is what she does. I could see the argument for painting Lady Trent as a white savior figure, but if she wasn’t part of one of the dominant cultures in this world, she wouldn’t have the means or access for all the different adventures described in the books. I suppose she could have been Akhian or Yengalese. (Arabian or Chinese, respectively, the other two dominant cultures.) She also forms genuine friendships with the people she lives among, and tries to do her best by them.

I enjoyed the introduction of the Akhian archeologist, and how that helped pull the focus of the books a little bit more onto the ancient culture of Draconeans, who Lady Trent had been largely uninterested in before. He soon became one of my favorite characters, so I was quite happy to see the events of the fourth book take Lady Trent to Akhia.

The fifth book unveiled quite a few surprises. We get to learn a lot more about the Draconeans, which was really cool. They also presented a culture with allowance for group marriage; at one point a villager asks Lady Trent if all four men she’s travelling with are her husbands!

The five books altogether were a really interesting progression in the history of the study of dragons, and I quite enjoyed them. They were definitely unique.

From the cover of A Natural History of Dragons:

Marie Brennan begins a thrilling new fantasy series in A Natural History of Dragons, combining adventure with the inquisitive spirit of the Victorian Age.

“You, dear reader, continue at your own risk. It is not for the faint of heart—no more so than the study of dragons itself. But such study offers rewards beyond compare: to stand in a dragon’s presence, even for the briefest of moments—even at the risk of one’s life—is a delight that, once experienced, can never be forgotten. . . .”

All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.

Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.

Advertisements

Book Review: Spinning Silver

spinning silverSpinning Silver
by Naomi Novik
Fantasy/Fairy Tale Retelling
466 pages
Published July 10, 2018

I had previously read Uprooted, and adored it, so I was eager to get my hands on this book as soon as it came out. I was very excited to see it as a Book of the Month choice for July, and quickly made it my pick!

I received the book last weekend while I was at Anthrocon, so I didn’t get a chance to sit down with it until yesterday. (It officially came out Tuesday.) I proceeded to read straight through the entire book because it was SO. GOOD. Novik writes absolutely ENTHRALLING fairy tales. And in Spinning Silver, she has written fae as beautiful, alien, capricious, and as absolutely bound by rules as they should be. Doing a thing three times, even by normal means, gives one the power to ACTUALLY do the thing; in Miryem’s case, turning the Staryk’s silver into gold (by creative buying and selling) means she gains the power to LITERALLY turn silver into gold. Which then gets her into the trouble the rest of the book is built on.

One of my favorite lines was very near the end of the book, about the Staryk palace:

The Staryk didn’t know anything of keeping records: I suppose it was only to be expected from people who didn’t take on debts and were used to entire chambers wandering off and having to be called back like cats.

My only real quibble with the book is that it shifts viewpoints between at least five characters, and doesn’t start their sections with names or anything, so it takes a few sentences to figure out who’s talking. It never takes too long, but it did occasionally make me go “Wait, who is this….ah, okay.”

The plotlines weave in and out of each other’s way for most of the book before all colliding into each other at the end and showing how everything connects. I was definitely confused on occasion, but it was that enchanting Alice-in-Wonderland kind of confusion more than actual puzzlement. The book is, by turns, a mix of Rumpelstiltskin, Tam-Lin, Winter King vs Summer King, Snow Queen, and a little Hansel and Gretel. I love seeing elements of so many fairy tales woven together and yet still remaining recognizable.

And the ending! Oh, the ending was absolutely, marvelously perfect.

I loved this  book, just as much as I loved Uprooted. I can’t wait to see what fairy tales Novik spins next!

From the cover of Spinning Silver:

Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders, but her father’s inability to collect his debts has left his family on the edge of poverty – until Miryem takes matters into her own hands. hardening her heart, the young woman sets out to claim what is owed and soon gains a reputation for being able to turn silver into gold.

When an ill-advised boast draws the attention of the king of the Staryk – grim fey creatures who seem more ice than flesh – Miryem’s fate, and that of two kingdoms, will be forever altered. Set an impossible challenge by the nameless king, Miryem unwittingly spins a web that draws in a peasant girl, Wanda, and the unhappy daughter of a local lord who plots to wed his child to the dashing young tsar.

But Tsar Mirnatius is not what he seems. And the secret he hides threatens to consume the lands of humans and Staryk alike. Torn between deadly choices, Miryem and her two unlikely allies embark on a desperate quest that will take them to the limits of sacrifice, power, and love.

Channeling the vibrant heart of myth and fairy tale, Spinning Silver weaves a multilayered, magical tapestry that readers will want to return to again and again.

 

Book Review: Before the Storm

before the storm

World of Warcraft: Before the Storm
by Christie Golden
Video Game Tie-in/Fantasy
281 pages
Published June 2018

Christie Golden has written several World of Warcraft novels by now, including my favorite, Tides of War, about my lady Jaina Proudmoore. (I should mention my main is a human mage, so I am obviously biased toward the Alliance, and Jaina is my girl.) So when I heard she was writing the newest one, I was quite excited. Before the Storm was released in June, as part of the lead-up to the newest expansion of World of Warcraft, which drops in mid-August. It covers events that happen after the storyline of the current expansion, but before the storyline picks up in the next. There is not, however, much of an introduction, so if you’re not familiar with the video game, this book will lose you pretty much immediately.

Anduin became the King of Stormwind in the beginning of the last expansion, when his father died fighting the Legion. (RIP, Varian, you were pretty awesome.) As prince, Anduin often advocated for peace, often sneaking around and finding backchannels to communicate with like-minded people among The Horde, most notably Baine Bloodhoof, the high chieftain of the Tauren. As King, he’s continued to advocate for peace, but a bit more openly. Unfortunately, the leader of the Horde doesn’t necessarily feel the same way.

I loved Anduin’s scheme to foster understanding between the Forsaken and humans. I especially loved that it included Old Emma, who has been wandering around Stormwind in game for years. That’s actually something I love about the novels in general; often they’ll take those small, flavorful NPCs and actually give us the backstory, or use them in some new manner.

I also really loved the Goblin/Gnome pair who were tinkering with the Azerite, and I’m a little upset at the cliffhanger we left on in regards to them! Hopefully that will be resolved in the game itself.

I thought it interesting that the book still showed the priests working together as one, and the shamans and druids doing similarly. The shamans and druids have always done that to a point; not every shaman was part of the Earthen Ring, but the druids have always worked together regardless of faction. But if the classes are still being cohesive, why are the factions fighting? That’s 3 out of 12 classes still working cross-faction. Mages, also, have a strong cross-faction tradition. If a quarter to a third of the populace are working together, why are we still fighting? I suppose it’s probably technically smaller than a quarter; civilians and NPC soldiers don’t have classes, so they probably outnumber those with them. So perhaps it’s still a small minority, despite what we see as players. Sylvanus goading her own people doesn’t exactly help.

Anyway. I loved this book, I thought it set us up for Battle For Azeroth quite nicely, I’m eager to see what a certain surprising character from the book ultimately does, and I’m looking forward to release day!

From the cover of Before The Storm:

Azeroth’s reckoning has begun.

Azeroth is dying.

The Horde and the Alliance defeated the demonic Burning Legion, but a dire catastrophe is unfolding deep below the surface of the world. There is a mortal wound in the heart of Azeroth, struck by the sword of the fallen titan Sargeras in a final act of cruelty.

For Anduin Wrynn, king of Stormwind, and Sylvanus Windrunner, warchief of the Horde and queen of the Forsaken, there is little time to rebuild what remains, and even less to mourn what was lost. Azeroth’s devastating wound has revealed a mysterious mineral known as Azerite. In the right hands, this strange golden substance is capable of incredible feats of creation; in the wrong ones, it could bring forth unthinkable destruction.

As Alliance and Horde forces race to uncover the secrets of Azerite and heal the wounded world, Anduin enacts a desperate plan aimed at forging a lasting peace between the factions. Azerite jeopardizes the balance of power, and so Anduin must gain the trust of Sylvanus. But the Dark Lady ever has her own machinations.

For peace to be possible, generations of bloodshed and hatred must be put to rest. But there are truths that neither side is willing to accept and ambitions they are loath to relinquish. As Alliance and Horde alike grasp for the Azerite’s power, their simmering conflict threatens to reignite all-out war – a war that would spell doom for Azeroth.

Book Review: Dread Nation

dread nationDread Nation
by Justina Ireland
YA Fantasy (Alternate History)
454 pages
Published April 2018

So, as a general rule, I don’t read zombie stories. Zombies are the one monster that will almost invariably give me nightmares. This book, however, had such hype built up around it that I decided to bend my rule.

I should not have.

Before I start in on this, let me say it’s a good story. It’s well-written, the plot is paced nicely, and it’s entertaining. All that said, it’s quite problematic in many ways. I knew some of this before I read it; there was a Twitter thread about some of the issues, namely that in the Author’s Note she describes the Native American boarding schools (where the government forced Native American children to go, and tried to destroy their heritage and culture in the name of “civilizing” them) as “well-meaning.” The Twitter thread does an excellent job of dissecting that passage, and it’s worth reading.

There’s also the incredibly unrealistic scene where Jane gets flogged eleven times, walks back to where she’s staying, has a coherent conversation where she lays out a plan she has formed, and then puts a shirt on. That last part especially got me. Like, what? You’re going to be in more pain than that! Being flogged barely seems to slow Jane down. She asks for laudanum – for her plan. Not to take for the pain.

I don’t know. There’s a lot about the book that set my teeth on edge. There’s the absurd amount of racism, but the protagonist is a black woman and it’s civil war era, so that’s to be expected. And it’s coming from characters, not from narration. Jane lies. A lot. So it’s hard to trust that she’s even a reliable narrator.

I guess it’s okay. I didn’t care for it. I found it really hard to get past the author’s “well-meaning” comment about the Native American boarding schools. And the plot of “as soon as they’re old enough, black children get sent to combat schools.” Especially with what’s going on lately with the jailing of migrant children, it feels tone-deaf, ignorant, and genocidal.

One good point was the oh-so-casual mention of bisexuality (a female friend taught her “everything she knows about kissing”) but it was only two sentences and never mentioned again. Not nearly enough to make up for the rest of the book.

From the cover of Dread Nation:

Jane McKeene was born two days before the dead began to walk the battlefields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville—derailing the War Between the States and changing America forever. In this new nation, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Reeducation Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead. But there are also opportunities—and Jane is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect the well-to-do. It’s a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane. After all, not even being the daughter of a wealthy white Southern woman could save her from society’s expectations.

But that’s not a life Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home and doesn’t pay much mind to the politics of the eastern cities, with their talk of returning America to the glory of its days before the dead rose. But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies. And the restless dead, it would seem, are the least of her problems.

Book Review: Hero At The Fall

hero at the fallHero At The Fall
by Alwyn Hamilton
Fantasy
452 pages
Published March 2018

So there is one HUGE spoiler I want to talk about with this book. I will put it WAAAAYYY down at the bottom of this post, below the cover blurb. Don’t read it if you have any intention of reading this book. But I REEEAAALLLY want to talk about it.

That out of the way, this book was great! This is the concluding volume of the Rebel of the Sands trilogy, and it wrapped things up perfectly. I especially liked how she handled character deaths; each one got a short little chapter told in a legendary story kind of way, switching to a third person narrator instead of the first person viewpoint of Amani. The last chapter, telling us what came after the events of the book, was told in the same manner, and I really liked how it tied the book together.

There’s so little I can say about this book without spoiling the previous two! We learn even more about the Djinni in this book, and some of the creation myths of Amani’s people. We get a little more into the politics of other countries, and even a bit of their magic. And ohhhh there are stories to be told there, if Hamilton wants to continue in this world. I’d love to see a prequel based on Sam, and his country could do an entire sequel trilogy!

I think one of my favorite scenes was Amani using her control of sand to sail their ship across the desert. It’s just an amazing visual.

This was one of the best concluding books to a trilogy that I have read in a long time. Fantastic book.

Remember. Spoiler below the cover blurb.

From the cover of Hero At The Fall:

When gunslinging Amani Al-Hiza escaped her dead-end town, she never imagined she’d join a revolution, let alone lead one. But since the bloodthirsty Sultan of Miraji imprisoned the Rebel Prince Ahmed in the mythical city of Eremot, she doesn’t have a choice. Armed with only her revolver, her wits, and the Demdji powers she’s struggling to control, Amani must rally a skeleton crew of rebels through the unforgiving desert to a place that, according to maps, doesn’t exist. As she watches those she loves lay their lives on the line against ghouls and enemy soldiers, Amani questions whether she can be the leader they need or if she is leading them all to their deaths. Then she discovers there’s one death that could end the war for good – but it would tear her and Jin apart. Is she willing to give up the deepest love she’s ever known to save the country that has betrayed her all her life?

.

SPOILER ALERT DO NOT READ FURTHER IF YOU DON’T WANT TO BE SPOILED

.

.

.

Alright. Sure you want to read this?

I really, really appreciated how Amani made the choice she made, between Jin and Ahmed. She knew what Jin would have chosen. So she chose what he would have chosen. I don’t think he could have forgiven her if she’d chosen Ahmed. I was surprised she didn’t realize that would be her death as well; I assumed she knew that when she chose him. At first I thought the Djinni were uncommonly cruel, punishing her for something she didn’t know about, but then I realized they were punishing her for setting Zaahir free, not for bringing the ring with her. I mean, they’re still cruel to make her make that choice. And unreasonable, I think, for imprisoning Zaahir in the first place. But at least they were angry about her choices, not about her getting tricked by Zaahir.

Making her make the choice, though. “We won’t kill you, but you’ll have to pick one of these two men to die. The death of one of them will kill you, too. The death of the other won’t.” Jesus.

Book Review: Smoke Eaters

smoke eatersSmoke Eaters
by Sean Grigsby
Urban Fantasy? Dystopia?
334 pages
Published March 2018

Oh this was AWESOME. With the exception of the main character’s name (Cole Brannigan) making me think of Zapp Brannigan from Futurama ALL THE TIME, this was a great read. The book is actually set in the near future of Earth – sometime after “E-Day” which they never actually said what the “E” stood for, but maybe Emergence Day? Because that was the day the dragons burrowed up from the earth and started destroying everything. (They referred to a song popular in the 80s as “ancient music”!) There’s some new technology – androids are getting popular, robot dogs are common, and the Smoke Eaters have laser swords and laser cannons for taking down dragons. But firefighting is still mostly the same.

Not-Zapp Brannigan is about to retire when his (regular) fire fighting team unexpectedly encounters a dragon. Normally, normal fire fighters don’t go in until the Smoke Eaters have taken out the dragon, but they didn’t realize there was a dragon here until far too late. During the fight, Brannigan loses his oxygen mask and discovers he can breathe in the thick smoke and be fine. He’s a literal Smoke Eater. When the actual Smoke Eaters arrive and discover him, he’s shanghaied into joining up.

The book covers Brannigan’s Smoke Eater training, what little of it he gets, and the trouble he gets into being on the Mayor’s bad side. We get to see several different types of dragons, and also see how the experience of many years of fighting normal fires helps with dragon-fighting strategy. There’s some theories on the dragons – where they came from, how they reproduce, how best to fight them.

Most of the book takes place in Ohio, but they take a jaunt to Canada and – well Canada’s gone VERY WEIRD.

This book was great, and a fun ride start to finish. I hope he writes more in this world, though the book is a perfectly fine standalone.

From the cover of Smoke Eaters:

When dragons rise from the earth, firefighters are humanity’s last line of defense, in this wild near-future fantasy.

Firefighter Cole Brannigan is on the verge of retirement after 30 years on the job, and a decade fighting dragons. But during his final fire call, he discovers he’s immune to dragon smoke. It’s such a rare power that he’s immediately conscripted into the elite dragon-fighting force known as the Smoke Eaters. 

Retirement cancelled, Brannigan is re-assigned as a lowly rookie, chafing under his superiors. So when he discovers a plot to take over the city’s government, he takes matters into his own hands. With hundreds of innocent civilians in the crosshairs, it’s up to Brannigan and his fellow Smoke Eaters to repel the dragon menace.