Voyage of the Basilisk by Marie Brennan
Warning: Some inevitable spoilers for the previous novels, A Natural History of Dragons and The Tropic of Serpents, will follow.
Voyage of the Basilisk: A Memoir by Lady Trent (2015) is the third in Marie Brennan’s series A NATURAL HISTORY OF DRAGONS, and I found it falling somewhere between books one and two in terms of the reading experiences (better than the first, but not quite as good as the second). As always in this series, the narrative voice is the strongest aspect and managed to (mostly) outweigh the book’s weaknesses.
Readers will most likely note the resemblance between the title of this work and Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, which makes perfect sense as an analog since in this continuation of the series Lady Isabella Trent, along with her long-time colleague Tom and her young son Jake and his nanny, heads up a two-year scientific expedition a la Darwin’s trip on the HMS Beagle. Trent offers up a nice tease though, raising expectations from a mere naturalist expedition by telling the reader that earlier accounts of this well-documented trip had been an “outright lie,” a major cover-up thanks to issues of national security.
But those events won’t happen for quite a while in book time. Until then it’s a slow meander through this world’s version of our South Pacific islands as Trent continues to push back against the restrictions on women in this society to varying degrees of success even as she slowly adds to the world’s knowledge of dragonkind. I had a spectrum of responses to this section, comprising the first 175 pages or so.
One was a sense of impatience as the plot was less than compelling and moved along at a slow, stately pace, to say the least. The structure is episodic, but the individual episodes weren’t, to be honest, all that interesting and more than once I had to resist the urge to skim a little bit. It also felt far too summative in style. Although the pace and excitement picked up in the latter half, and the story became more scene than summary, the book still felt overlong by the end and even had me wondering if it was a necessary addition to the series. In other words, though being the third book, it had the feel of the dreaded “bridge book” in trilogies — a slow-moving “filler” of a book to get from book one to book three.
On the other hand, as with the other books, Lady Trent’s voice — wry, charming, dryly witty, introspective at times, highly intelligent, and supremely curious — makes up for a lot. And even if I felt the desire to skim now and then, I still fell under her spell enough so that for the most part the voice just carried me along happily. I also thought the moments, which were too few in the first half, where we saw more deeply into Lady Trent’s feelings and persona were some of the best in the book, as here, while she watches two dragons mating:
More than that, I found myself envying the dragons before me … I was struck by the companionship they shared — or rather that I imagined them sharing. It is not as if they were reading the latest scholarly journal together, or doing anything else I associated with the domestic harmony of marriage. But they were mated, and according to the villagers had been so for many years. I had that briefly, and then I had lost it. Whether I would ever have it again … at the time I could not say.
The other reason, beyond narrative voice, I could be more forgiving of the pace and unexciting events than I would be in another novel is that intellectually (if not readerly), I appreciated the fact that the book focused so much on science and curiosity, and in a fashion that presented them realistically. The scientific method is by its nature often slow and methodical, filled with fits and starts, and, as this book is not afraid to detail, errors. But as any scientist will tell you, failure often teaches as much (sometimes more) than success. I also like the big picture in the series of her science — that she is adding, over years, brick by brick, theory by theory, to the world’s store of information about and understanding of dragons. So one can argue that the slow pace is an appropriate one for the subject matter. That said, it’s a fine line to walk between pace and realism, and I can’t say Brennan wholly nails it.
The speed does, though, pick up quite a bit in the latter third, reaching at times an almost frantic pace as Trent becomes embroiled in a host of action scenes. One might even call it a bit rushed at the end, and maybe a little over-the-top pulp-heroish. So balance is a bit of an issue overall.
Meanwhile, as mentioned, the moments of deep characterization of Lady Trent were some of the best, especially as regards her sense of isolation, her constant battle with the world’s view of “correct” female behavior, and her conflict between motherhood and her love of what she does. Unfortunately, other characters don’t fare so strongly. This may be an artifact of the first-person narration, but most, such as her son, the ship’s captain, and the nanny, have very little page time and so never have a chance to come alive; their presence is barely felt. This is sadly even true of Tom, who has been part of the series from the start. A new character and fellow scientist introduced to the series, Suhail, has much more page time and indeed becomes an integral part not just of the plot but of Lady Trent’s life, but even he feels a bit two-dimensional, though there are hints of complexities, and I hope we see him in future books.
The only other aspect I had some issues with were how closely at times Brennan hewed to our own world. This is another fine line to walk in alternative historical fantasy, and while for the most part I felt wholly immersed in this charmingly quasi-Victorian universe, at times the analogs were so spot on they were distracting. A few examples are when she goes to see Komodo Dragons, or when she comes across Easter Island statues. Why this pulled me out I don’t know; it doesn’t bother me when Queen Victoria is mentioned, for instance, in other alternative histories. And it doesn’t bother me that this world calls horses “horses,” but for some reason calling Komodo Dragons “Komodo Dragons” was jarring. So this one I might need to chalk up to being my issue and not Brennan’s.
The first book of the series is, I think, the weakest of the trio, with some pacing and plotting issues, but the voice still endeared me to the character and made me want to pick up book two, which improved in all ways on book one. Voyage of the Basilisk is a small step back: better pacing, more scene than summary, and a sharper group of side characters all would have improved the novel. But really, it’s hard to complain much about spending more time with Lady Trent.
What I enjoy most about Marie Brennan’s LADY TRENT MEMOIR series is the narrative voice. Isabella Camherst engages in adventures and feats of derring-do that would have H. Rider Haggard clapping his hands in glee, and they are related in the crisp, slightly sardonic tone of a well-educated and witty Victorian gentlewoman. Voyage of the Basilisk is no exception. The third book of series moves several plot points forward and has Isabella learning new things about dragons and herself.
Isabella’s dry and scientific tone make the dramatic descriptions somehow more plausible. Here she contrasts her personal experience with the “tall tales” common with sailors:
I am not a sailor, and I tell you with utter and scientific honesty: a sea-serpent can and will come hurtling out of the sea like a geyser, just as the stories say, a column of grey-blue scales five, ten, fifteen meters high, water streaming from its length — and then curve itself midair so that when it falls, its head enters the water on the far side of its prey.
In Voyage of the Basilisk, Isabella and her colleague Tom Wilker embark upon a long sea voyage, intending to study dragons and their lizard-like “cousins” in a number of places. Isabella brings along her nine-year-old son and his governess. As one expects with a Lady Trent story, things soon go off-course in a number of ways. Although she states repeatedly that she is only interested in dragons, Isabella is frequently a force in her world’s geo-politics. Notice I didn’t say “a force for good.” Isabella is more a force for chaos, although in this case the outcome for her mother nation is a good one.
The delightful tone of the LADY TRENT books compensates for a structure that means the adventure part of the plot really doesn’t get cranking until the last third. Fortunately, Brennan introduces a new character, Suhail, very early on. Suhail is an archeologist and his interest is the Draconeans, humanoid beings who are extinct, their lives shrouded in mystery. His interests dovetail with Isabella’s. Brennan has to rely on a gigantic coincidence to bring Suhail fully into this story, but I’m glad she did because the advancement of the Draconean story is fascinating – and Suhail is cool.
As always, Isabella encounters a society with mores and customs that are foreign to her. In this case it is the islanders on a volcanic island similar to those in the South Pacific. Brennan’s description of the scrubby vegetation and bare terrain closer to the caldera of the active volcano is perfect, and the concept of people within the tribe who are “dragon-spirited,” is of course a perfect match for Isabella. Brennan borrowed liberally from Polynesian culture (you mustn’t stand on the shadow of a royal person; men and women cannot eat together, etc.) and makes it work.
Voyage of the Basilisk, perhaps slightly more than the previous two, has a tempting taste of the forbidden fruit of “secret history.” Not-so-secret now, I guess, as Lady Trent, decades later, is pulling aside the veil on her adventures. In part this explains the political aspect of this plot and the extreme feats of heroism Isabella enacts towards the end of the book. Without giving anything away, there is a priceless description of how Isabella was depicted in the tabloids during one such adventure, versus how it really happened.
I think the pacing is more awkward in this book than it was in The Tropic of Serpents, but overall Voyage of the Basilisk was a thoroughly enjoyable read, and makes me eager for the next book, the In the Labyrinth of the Drakes, due out in 2016.
I have to get this out of the way first and foremost: the entirety of Voyage of the Basilisk is printed in blue ink. BLUE INK, PEOPLE. Including the illustrations! Which inspired me to double-check my copies of A Natural History of Dragons and The Tropic of Serpents, and guess what? The first book is printed in black ink, but I’m 99% sure that the second is in dark brown. It’s subtle, but there’s a definite difference between the two, especially when you compare Todd Lockwood’s gorgeous illustrations side-by-side. So I peeked ahead to In the Labyrinth of Drakes and Within the Sanctuary of Wings, and was amazed to see red ink in the former and purple ink in the latter. How fun! More publishers need to do interesting things like switching up ink colors, says I.
Oh, right, I’m supposed to be writing a review of Voyage of the Basilisk… but it’s tough to do that without talking about the really interesting design choices Tor made for the MEMOIRS OF LADY TRENT series. The cover art for each book is stunning, the illustrations within are a lovely touch (particularly the portrait work for certain characters), and printing Marie Brennan’s pitch-perfect text in a different color for each book just makes them that much more special. Every component works in concert to create the sensation that you really are sitting down and reading the memoirs of a celebrated naturalist, one who grew up in a Victorian England-analogue and who helped affect change in social, political, and scholarly fields around the world.
The pace of the novel is certainly episodic as Isabella Camherst travels with her young son Jake, scientific companion Tom Wilker, and the crew of the Basilisk travel from port to port, seeking news and possibly samples of dragonkind living in various locations. I do appreciate that Brennan made the story less tedious than the source material; while Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle makes for interesting reading on an intellectual level, it tends to be a little repetitive and over-filled with detail, as is understandable considering Darwin’s purpose and goals. The action scenes near the end were an unexpected departure from the steadier pace of the preceding pages, and do make the novel seem a little unbalanced, as both Bill and Marion mentioned above.
On the other hand, Mrs. Camherst’s unflappable scientific curiosity and her passion for knowledge shine clearly on every page, and Brennan has done a wonderful job of capturing her narrative voice. There’s a perfect balance between the younger version of Mrs. Camherst, climbing through lava tubes or stalking through jungles, and the older version, putting pen to paper in a comfortable study and chuckling at her younger self’s missteps and successes. The way Brennan portrays the two personas at once is remarkable, especially since Lady Trent’s sharp wit and clear hindsight leave no one unscathed, including herself.
Lady Trent is the best part of this series; Brennan’s description of scientific methods and the thrill of discovery is a close second. The novels’ pace might be a little slow, but that feels like a deliberate choice on Brennan’s part, and deepens the illusion that I’m actually reading a Lady’s memoir of her high-spirited adventures. Since the beginning, I’ve gotten the impression that Brennan is maneuvering Lady Trent (and the reader) toward some truly amazing revelations, and I expect that great things lie in wait In the Labyrinth of Drakes.
I didn’t realize this was already out. I’ll have to order it because I am really enjoying this series; and I love the title — nice play on VOYAGE OF THE BEAGLE.
Another comment. I’ve noticed the “patchwork” quality of the alternate world in all three books and I have much the same reaction. I don’t know why, exactly. It seems like the use of proper nouns is especially jarring — as if it’s weird someone named Komodo (or a place named that) existed in her world when, for instance, Queen Victoria apparently does not. This is an interesting aspect of the world-building process.
Marion, I saw this at a bookstore the other day, and the type/illustrations were in blue ink. Blue! It was very difficult for me to walk out of the store empty-handed. :)
To the point that you and Bill both raised, reading about an “Easter Island” or “Komodo dragons” in this alternate history/universe would absolutely be jarring for me, especially when Brennan’s gone to such pains as far as creating continent names, new days of the week, etc.
Addendum: in actually reading the text (and the fact that it isn’t named Easter Island) the inclusions were far less jarring and troublesome than I expected. I’m glad!
I thought this one fell short of the second book as well. I had issues with pacing, and found it uneventful for a while. But I loved how realistic Marie makes the dragon research seem, and I was all into trying to figure out their evolution with Isabella.
Ending was over-top, but don’t most memoirs have some type fisherman’s tale in them? ;-)
Any book that would make my main man, H. Rider Haggard, clap his hands with glee sounds pretty darn good to me!
Marion, are you listening to the audio books or reading these? I have to say that the audio books, narrated by Kate Reading, are fabulous.
April,visually reading. Audio books don’t work for me that well. I hope Kat gets a chance to check out a couple of the audio books; they sound great!
The author herself does a great job. Of course, I would want her to follow me around my house in period dress while she was reading.
I will check these out. Thanks for the suggestion, April.
Marion, I like your idea!
Nice review Marion–I agree with you on the voice. I do hope whoever does the audio nails that as it is so integral to this series