In the Labyrinth of Drakes is the fourth book in the MEMOIRS BY LADY TRENT series by Marie Brennan, and in terms of quality I’d place it just behind the second one, The Tropic of Serpents, which so far is my favorite. And if it has a few of the same issues that have detracted from prior books, as always, these are outweighed by the wonderful voice of the narrator, which is really the number one reason for picking up this series.
As has been the pattern, In the Labyrinth of Drakes sees Lady Trent looking back on a trip to yet another foreign setting in order to study the native dragon species. And again, as usual, other issues arise that complicate her endeavor. In this case, the setting is Akhia — this alternate world’s analogue to the Great Arabian desert, complete with desert tribes only recently united (though not without resistance from some), oases, sandstorms, camels, tribal feuds, sheiks, and, more unique to this world, still-glorious ruins of the long-lost Draconean Civilization. And, of course, dragons. It is these that Lady Trent and her erstwhile partner Tom are enjoined by their government to study as part of an arms race with the rival nation Yelang to find a means to breed dragons as a renewable source of dragonbone, which has become a vital military resource.
None of Lady Trent’s expeditions, though, ever go smoothly, and this one is no exception. In the course of her experiments she must deal with foreign saboteurs, local cultural mores, rebellious desert tribes, the disapproving traditionalists of her own country, the potentially lethal environment, and the complications of her own heart. That last thanks to the arrival on scene of a character from a prior book — Suhail.
As mentioned, the strength of In the Labyrinth of Drakes, and of the series as a whole, is the first-person narration of Lady Trent herself, which is always sharply, thrillingly intelligent and also wonderfully, variously wry, self-deprecating, angry, introspective, oblivious, awed, indignant, and the list goes on. In short, she is an entire personality vividly, compellingly portrayed in all its human complexity. She is the epitome of a point I’ve made in other reviews — give me a great voice and I’ll happily follow that story all the way to the end regardless of whatever flaws it may have. Brennan has found/created just such a voice and I can tell already I’ll miss Lady Trent whenever her memoirs come to a close.
Beyond the narration, the other strength of the series is its detailed, honest depiction of science at work. I absolutely love how Brennan, first of all, creates a fantasy world where science is existent, valued, and progressing. We don’t see enough of this in the genre, I’d argue. Even better, Brennan doesn’t gloss over the hard work of science or skip over its “boring” parts. We get science as it actually works — the painstaking collection of data, nearly obsessive observation and recording, the careful planning and setting up of multiple experiments to gather useful data by attempting to isolate variables, collaboration, failure, the importance of daily work versus the mythical “sudden epiphany of genius.” Here, for instance, is one of my favorite passages, dealing with the discovery that desert drake eggs have an unusually thick membrane:
“Why so thick, do you think?” Tom asked me…
“Perhaps it is a holdover from the more leathery type of egg,” I said… “The harder shell could have developed in response to environmental factors, but the more flexible exterior remained.”
It was a nice theory, and I held to it for many years. Tom eventually conducted experiments, however, that gave us a more accurate explanation…
We have an observation, a question that arises from that observation, a hypothesis that fits the knowledge of the time, experimentation to test the hypothesis, and an eventual rejection of the original theory in favor of a better one based on better data. And a scientist who matter-of-factly acknowledges a faulty theory because that’s just how science works. Lady Trent is a wonderful dual role model in these books — a role model for strong, independent, intelligent women who refuse to be bound by society’s bars and a role model for good science. I’d take either alone, but give me both, and dragons to boot? Pardon my drool.
Other positive elements of In the Labyrinth of Drakes outside the main character and the science include the smooth pace, which has at times been problematic in prior books in the series; the equally smooth prose style, which carries the reader along effortlessly throughout the novel; the complex push-pull of Trent’s compassion for the dragons as it comes in conflict with the necessities of her responsibilities and studies; and an ending that I won’t say anything about beyond the fact that it opens up the story even more.
The novel does have a few weak spots. None of the characters beyond Lady Trent have much depth to them, ranging from her brother Andrew, who is barely a sketch here, to Tom, who has been portrayed more fully in other books. The setting too feels a bit slight, the sort of baseline “Arab desert” setting one might be able to pen from a viewing of Lawrence of Arabia or the like. You’ve got the sandstorm, the knife slicing open the back of a tent, a moonlight abduction across the sands, robes, veils, camel rides, etc. It’s all conveyed smoothly and effectively, but it does feel a bit generic, and I would have liked either a greater sense of lived-in setting or a few more unique-to-this-world desert culture moments. And in general, the plot is pretty languid and, honestly, not all that compelling.
All that being true, it’s also true that I just didn’t care. Plot-Schmot, I say. And if the book could have just as easily done without Andrew in it, well, I wasn’t paying attention to him anyway, not when Lady Trent is talking. Which, since she’s narrating, she always is. Voice. It’s all about Voice with Lady Trent. And In the Labyrinth of Drakes nails it from start to finish.
I don’t know if I can match Bill’s superlative review above — he hits on every single point I would make about In the Labyrinth of Drakes, and I sincerely mean it when I say that he and I are in almost-total agreement on the strengths and weaknesses of the text. The strengths include Lady Trent’s voice, the implementation of science and history in what is ostensibly a fantasy setting, Lady Trent’s voice, the further deepening of mystery and wonder surrounding the lost Draconean civilization, Lady Trent’s voice (are you seeing a pattern?), etc. I’ve been trying for over a week to come up with a more authentic narrative voice in speculative fiction, one that feels more real and lived-in than Isabella Camherst, and I honestly can’t. Marie Brennan deserves all the praise she gets, and more besides, for her achievements in this regard.
The secondary-character work isn’t as strong as it has been in previous novels, to be sure. We don’t see much interaction between Isabella and Suhail at first, and Brennan establishes that they haven’t been in communication since their adventures in Voyage of the Basilisk, so it’s a lucky thing that readers have that background, or the complicated feelings Isabella has regarding Suhail wouldn’t make any sense. Once he joins her expedition into the Jefi desert and the labyrinth itself, he’s a valuable and welcome team member, but Tom Wilker and Isabella’s brother Andrew Hendemore provide little personal spark after that point. As with the other novels, it’s an issue of balance; I could also argue that Isabella’s dragon-monomania might be the culprit, pushing aside her friendships with those two men in favor of scholarly matters, but this is the one time Brennan doesn’t provide much in the way of retrospective self-awareness. It’s a shame, and I hope to see a little course-correction as the series progresses.
The expedition into the labyrinth itself is the high point of In the Labyrinth of Drakes, along with the new understanding of Draconean culture and symbolism. (Fans of the series who have been paying attention to which cultures/countries stand in as analogues for real-world examples will enjoy this part as well.) The lead-up to that is a little slow, a sidebar with honeysucker breeding doesn’t figure as much in this novel as I would like, and the Royal Army’s commission to breed full-size dragons for bone harvesting makes for an excellent excuse to get Lady Trent into Akhia, but the follow-through isn’t as strong as it could be.
Still and all, these are minor slights, and In the Labyrinth of Drakes is massively appealing despite some uneven plot points and character work. This is wholly Lady Trent’s story, and she tells it beautifully.