Within the Sanctuary of Wings by Marie Brennan
Bill Capossere: Plotting and pace have always been the sticking points for me in the MEMOIRS OF LADY TRENT series by Marie Brennan, the reasons why the individual books have never climbed above a four-star rating for me and have at times dipped to three and a half. But what has never flagged for me has been my appreciation of that wonderful narrative voice, that of Lady Trent herself. Voice is the reason I kept reading these novels, and voice is what has finally led me here to the fifth and supposedly final one, Within the Sanctuary of Wings (2017). And once again, I find that while issues of plot and pace raise their heads once more, I’m willing to (mostly) overlook them just to bask for perhaps the last time in that archly clever, witty, and wry voice.
By now readers know what to expect (I’m assuming you’re only reading this because you’ve read the first four, but just in case, spoilers for those books are ahead): Lady Isabella Trent is growing a bit intellectually restless and some sort of precipitating event connected to her dragon scholarship sees her heading off to an as-yet unseen (by Lady Trent and the readers) corner of this alternative world. Once there, other events (several precipitated by Lady Trent herself) see her enmeshed in a slew of tangles and adventures, usually involving scholarship, diplomacy, the military, and with ever-increasing stakes.
In Within the Sanctuary of Wings, the precipitating event is the interruption of her husband Suhail’s lecture on the Draconean language by a Yelangese (the greatest rival nation to Trent’s own country of Scirland) man who tells her he believes he’s discovered the remains of a hitherto unknown dragon species in the upper reaches of the Mrtyahaima Mountains (think Himalayas), which border on Yelang itself. To no reader’s shock, Trent dismisses the obvious obstacles — a nearly unreachable mountain height, great distance, a closed kingdom, a border with a country her own is currently at war with and with whom she has had personal conflict with, concern the Yelangese might be leading her into a trap — and is soon climbing with her husband Suhail and her erstwhile companion dragon scholar Tom, along with the Yelangese Thu Phim-lat, into the high mountains.
What she discovers there will change the future of her country and the world entire, and though I’d say it’s strongly telegraphed and thus comes as little surprise to the reader, I won’t spoil it here. Suffice to say the discovery is appropriate in both its scale and its content to the culminating story in this series.
As noted above, the strength in Within the Sanctuary of Wings, as it has been throughout the series, is Lady Trent herself, particularly her voice: consistently sharp, often wry, sometimes self-deprecating, withering at times (as when she turns it towards the treatment of women in her society), but always, always engaging. I’ve read narrative voices that were more compelling, more witty, more thoughtful, but I don’t know if I’ve ever read such a smooth luring voice, almost a siren song kind of voice, that carries me so effortlessly across plot that at times offers little to hold my attention save the voice of the one relating it. Truly, I’d say this series is a master class (if one could figure it out) in how to pull your reader through so easily they don’t even realize they’ve reached the end until they go to turn one more page and there are none left.
Admittedly, that is somewhat damning with great (not faint) praise. But the truth is I found the plotting much less compelling that the narrator’s beguiling voice. As mentioned, the big discovery is pretty strongly telegraphed, and of course, no matter what sort of “danger” Brennan puts her main character in, we know — because she’s written this memoir after all — that she survives. So the plot loses more than a little drama. Even the geopolitical impact isn’t suspenseful, since we know (again, thanks to the retrospective nature of this memoir) that Lady Trent lives a comfortable life in a society not all that different from that of the first few adventures/books. And while I mostly hate it when people say of a book “nothing happens,” well (he says, somewhat embarrassed), nothing much happens here. One almost gets the sense Brennan herself knows this, as more than once Lady Trent elides time and events, saying relating what occurred would be too tedious for her readers.
Most of Within the Sanctuary of Wings sees Trent limited to a single tiny setting and limited as well, greatly limited, in her opportunities for interaction with other characters. And even her interaction with those she can talk to is further constrained by language difficulties. Nor can I say, as I usually can with books with little “active” plot, that the book is a character study, because really the character of Lady Trent doesn’t undergo much if any change, nor do we learn much about other characters. Even others who have played major roles in prior books, such as Suhail and Tom, are relegated to bit players here, and playing more type roles than anything else. New characters, meanwhile, serve more as plot points than truly realized beings, with a few momentary exceptions.
But this is the enduring mystery of this series. By all rights I shouldn’t have enjoyed this book at all, but despite these problems, and despite feeling a lag now and then, I was mostly perfectly content to pull up a chair and listen to this older woman tell me the tale of her life. So much so that though I’d put Within the Sanctuary of Wings a bit below books two and four in the series, I honestly hope there’s at least one more story left in her. After all, as she tells us in her introduction:
This book does not chronicle the end of my life, as I am not yet dead; indeed, I am still hale enough that I hope to enjoy many years to come. It does not even chronicle the end of my career; I have done a great many things since the events described herein, and am rather proud of some of them.
Let’s hear about them, Lady Trent. Let’s hear them.
Jana Nyman: Given that I’ve agreed with Bill’s (and occasionally Marion’s) assessments of Marie Brennan’s MEMOIRS OF LADY TRENT, I was surprised to find our reactions differed greatly with regards to Within the Sanctuary of Wings, the fifth and final volume in the series. I found that this novel surpassed the others, overcoming the usual problems of pacing and character to become something really special and exemplary.
This time, Lady Trent is drawn to the Mrtyahaima mountain range, a contentious and dangerous stretch of land between Vidwatha and Yelang (and containing other countries besides). Outright war between Yelang and Scirland seems possible, as the two nations have been economic and industrial foes for a long time, and recent innovations in synthetic dragonbone have given the Yelangese a significant edge in aerial technology and transport. Naturally, the best place for a Scirling baroness to go wandering around is in a contested region of the world, where she could be deported by the Yelangese in the best-case scenario or outright killed in the worst-case. But the promise of seeing a preserved specimen of a previously unknown dragon species is too much for her to ignore, so she, Suhail, and Tom Wilker head to one of the tallest peaks in the world, led by the specimen’s discoverer, Thu Phim-lat.
Several obstacles stand in the way of Lady Trent’s success, not least of which is her own country’s military and its involvement in local politics, in addition to natural weather and climatological phenomena, as well as the pesky issue of her gender. Her burning desire to prove herself as an equal to her male colleagues, and the frustration that she must do exponentially more than they in order to receive even a pinch of recognition, fuels her every step in Within the Sanctuary of Wings; anyone who has been in a similar situation will recognize just how hard Isabella works for minimal reward. But her devotion is still to science, and to the progress of dragon naturalists, and the lengths to which she is willing to go in furtherance of that devotion is laudable.
As always, Todd Lockwood’s cover art and interior illustrations are wonderful, and are a perfect complement to the text, evoking a specific time, place, and art style which deepen the illusion of reading a well-educated Victorian-esque Lady’s memoir. Whether he’s created an anatomical diagram or a character’s portrait, his work is both expressive and fluid, capturing entirely imaginary creatures and people as though he had seen them firsthand. Additionally, the inclusion of regional maps in each of these books has been a real help in centering my understanding of where events are happening in relation to one location or another.
I do agree that the base conceit of a personal memoir (fictional though it may be) does remove some potential drama from the plot, but that didn’t mar my enjoyment of any of the books so far, and didn’t do so in this instance either. Though I had no reason to believe Lady Trent might die (and somehow write her memoirs posthumously) I also had no reason to believe things would go perfectly well for herself or any other involved parties, and her adventures are exciting enough to captivate my interest. By the same token, one of my great-grandmothers left behind her entire family and culture — everything she knew and loved — in order to come to America with her husband. I know she survived the journey and did well enough on their little farm to support a new family, because my grandmother and my father and I all exist. But, if Nana Kober were still alive, I would love to hear her stories of the ocean voyage and what it was like to strike out a new life in a strange land, which would be filled with enough drama to keep me spellbound for hours. So it is the same with Lady Trent; the fact that she lives to tell these tales doesn’t diminish the potential for spectacle or tragedy.
I’ve been enchanted with these books since I first opened A Natural History of Dragons, and the final pages of Within the Sanctuary of Wings felt like a tremendous validation — not only for Lady Trent, but for myself as a reader, who’s been rooting for her succes since that first encounter with a sparkling. Her long path from curious young girl to novice scientist to world-renowned naturalist has brought such joy to my heart, as much as the real-life biographies and memoirs of Marie Curie, Temple Grandin, and Sally Ride. Marie Brennan has created a fictional character who is easily the equal of any of these great women, and as sad as I might be that Lady Trent’s tale has come to an end, I look forward to re-reading THE MEMOIRS OF LADY TRENT many times in the years to come. Highly, highly recommended.