LitStack Review: Voyage of the Basilisk by Marie Brennan

Voyage of the Basilisk – Voyage of the Basilisk
A Memoir by Lady Trent
Marie Brennan
Tor Books
Release Date:  March 31, 2015
ISBN 978-0-7653-3198-4

I want to be Lady Trent when I grow up.

Okay, so I’m way past the age where I could look forward to being “grown up”, but I still admire Lady Trent, the heroine of Marie Brennan’s “Natural History of Dragons” series (of which Voyage of the Basilisk is the third, but not the final, installment).  In this Victorian-esque series (I say “Victorian-esque” because while the speech and sensitivities are evocative of Britain’s Victorian era, Lady Trent’s world is not our own, at least not cosmetically; the land masses, countries, date names, etc. are different and, well, there are dragons…), Lady Trent, otherwise known as Isabella Camherst, is considered somewhat unorthodox due to the nature of her sex; females generally did not dabble in the applied sciences, and were not usually renown as naturalists, especially naturalists whose specialty is dragons.

So much for convention.

While in many ways Isabella adheres to traditional Scirland (re:  British) society, she has little compunction with ignoring convention when it comes to her scientific study.  Having the audacity to become a naturalist in the first place, and to actually speak out and publish papers about her theories and findings rather than let her male counterparts do so on her behalf, had already gained her some degree of notoriety.  Tragically becoming a widow during her first scientific expedition to far off Vystrana and yet still continuing on – unchaperoned! – with her research (and getting herself embroiled in political and legal scrapes) was scandalous enough (as she related in A Natural History of Dragons).  When she then embarked on her next expedition, this time to the sultry jungles of Eriga, the gossip-mongers had a field day – and they didn’t know half of the adventure that voyage turned out to be! (Thankfully she shared those adventures with us in the second book of the series, The Tropic of Serpents.)

So when Isabella sets off on a two year ocean journey around the world to study dragons of all kinds, again in the company of fellow researcher Thomas Wilker, and this time bringing along her nine year old son, Jake, tongues wag once again.  And once again, Isabella pays them little heed.

Sea serpents, dragons, and creatures akin to either but heretofore unknown make their way through the pages of this memoir, but so do pirates, bandits, storms at sea, tyrannical captains, belligerent tropical natives and threats to life and limb, for this is Isabella Camherst we are traveling along with here, and nothing seems to go according to plan or unfold quietly when it comes to the pursuit of dragons!

Okay, so that’s my tongue wagging just a little bit there, to heighten the suspense.  Turns out, all those things do occur in The Voyage of the Basilisk, but they flow very fluently into and through the story.  For instance, yes, there is a tyrannical captain of the ship, but only when he needs to be decisive and authoritative.  And yes, Isabella had to restrain herself from calling him “the mad Dione Aekinitos” as per his reputation, but not due to any unhinging of his faculties:

His madness lay not in outward appearances, nor even in daily behavior, but simply in the fact that he considered the sea a challenge.  Like all sailors who survive for longer than a year, he had a healthy respect for the dangers the ocean poses…but “respect for” and “fear of” are not quite the same thing.  One had no sooner to tell him a thing was difficult than he would immediately begin formulating plans to test himself against it.

And therein hinges the greatest strength of The Voyage of the Basilisk, and indeed, the entire “Natural History of Dragons” series:  the fantastic exists, but with a reasonable face.  There are mad sea captains, but mad in the face of land dwellers who cannot grasp the challenges of the sea.  There are dragons, but they are part of the natural world to be studied, like birds and whales.  Yes, sea serpents are ridden, but as a kind of “coming of age” dare on the part of native islanders, not as some mystical enchantment by ancient elementals.  Yes, there is a dark island shrouded in superstition and mystery…but it is an island whose secrets and mysteries can be understood by a scientific mind – and kept intact by a humanist heart.  Heck, we even had perhaps the most convoluted, amazing, flagrantly scandalous and yet absolutely understandable gender bending situation in staid speculative fiction (I can just imagine the twittering of the tabloids back in Falchester had they known this tidbit at the time!).  All told in the cultured voice of a woman who believes in upholding traditions, yet has no problem shedding them when they stand in the way of her goals.  When they keep her from studying dragons.

And the future Lady Trent never breaks character.  Author Marie Brennan hints at romance in her narrative, but Isabella never succumbs to even a hint of impropriety, either with stalwart companion Thomas Wilker or the fascinating Akhian archaeologist Suhail.  What they do have is adventures, and find themselves embroiled in intrigue in an ever widening political sphere, even halfway across their world.  Yet Isabella faces each challenge with a pragmatic and fearless aplomb.  She truly is an admirable heroine, even if she herself would scoff at such a title.

With wonderful illustrations by Todd Lockwood, and a meticulous attention to period detail from the antiqued endpapers and creamy cast to the pages, to the typeface set in an inky blue rather than typical black, the look of the book is just as reminiscent of a Victorian manuscript as the phrasing and sensibilities.  This book is a marvelous journey into the imagination on every level.

April 5, 2016, when the next volume of Lady Trent’s memoir, In the Labyrinth of Drakes, is slated to be released, cannot come quickly enough.  I wait with bated breath.

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