b by Mary Jo
Though I'm a lifelong reader of both historical novels and science fiction and fantasy, I somehow managed to miss Marie Brennan's Lady Trent series until I read about the upcoming release of the fifth and last of her series of memoirs written by a distinguished dragon naturalist.
Dragons? Lady Trent? Within the Sanctuary of Wings? Clearly this was something I must investigate! So I cautiously tried the first book, A Natural History of Dragons. And was hooked, big time. I've very grateful that the series was complete when I started to read it!
Rather than describe Lady Trent's world myself, here is the blurb of the first book, (which got a starred review from Publishers Weekly.)
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.
Lady Trent is a delightfully acerbic, humorous narrator who reminds me of Amelia Peabody of the much loved Elizabeth Peters' mystery series. Marie, could you tell us about Isabella and how she came into being? And how she started kicking over the traces at such a tender age?
MB: She did that at a tender age in more ways than one. Like Athena from the head of Zeus, Isabella more or less sprang full-formed from my head; it took her less than a page into the first chapter of the first book to develop her personality. My starting concept was "a lady studying dragons in a pseudo-Victorian world," but her dry wit, her impatience with obstacles, and her increasingly vocal opinions on gender all developed more or less spontaneously. I think it's part of why people have responded to her so strongly, too: she feels less like a construct and more like a real person who happens to be telling you her story.
MJP: It took me a while to recognize the close parallels between the world we know and Isabella's world. There are lovely maps drawn by Rhys Davies and they aren't identical to our world, but it seems like Isabella's country, Scirland, is an analog of Britain. Niddey seems to be Ireland. Vystrana seems to be some part of Scandinavia, Finland, perhaps. The third book, Voyage of the Basilisk, seemed inspired by Darwin's voyage of the Beagle. Can you tell us more about your world building?
MB: I think of it as "world and a half" — not our world, but not fully a secondary world like Middle-Earth. I chose not to set the series in our own nineteenth century because I wanted to have things like the ancient Draconean civilization, which would have really changed the shape of history, and also because I didn't want to be fully constrained by the political forces of the past; in Isabella's world, for example, there's still colonialism, but there was never anything on the scale of the Atlantic slave trade to utterly shatter the countries in their equivalent of Africa. Similarly, Yelang is much more of a world power than China was at that point in history, quite capable of opposing Scirland on its own terms.
On the other hand, given that my narrator was going to be going all around the world, I really wanted a chance to show something like the diversity of culture that we have in reality. So every place she goes is based at least partly on a real location — but I had the freedom to alter details, so that Vystrana (which is mostly Romanian) has Finnish-style saunas, because why not.
The dominant religion of Anthiope is ~Judaism, with the Temple-based and rabbinical forms occupying roles analogous to those of Catholicism and Protestantism. Bayembe, which has numerous ethnic groups within it, combines elements of Yoruba and Mali and Ghana and other West African sources. I have a Polynesian-style society, a Mesoamerican one, an Arabian one, etc. It gave me the chance to bring in lots of cultural practices you don't often see in fantasy — and even wound up leading to a Patreon monthly subscription blog, which is all about expanding what kinds of things we see in speculative fiction world-building.
MJP: Each of the books covers one of Isabella's most famous expeditions and stands alone very nicely. But when I finished the fifth book, I realized that the series had been building to a great and surprising crescendo. Did you have a clear idea of the overall series arc when you started? It's all so well plotted that I think you must have known where you were going.
MB: Yes and no. I knew from the start that I wanted it to be a five-book series, and I knew what big discovery Isabella was going to make at the end. But I went back recently and looked at the document I sent my editor when we were pitching the series, and . . . wow. You can see the outline of the story I ended up writing, but you have to tilt your head to the side and squint. Things happen at different points than I originally planned, or for wildly different reasons, or they don't happen at all and instead something else takes place that kind of sort of fills the same function.
A lot of the structure happened as I wrote my way through the series, because I needed more than just an outline before I could really judge when was the right time to introduce ideas or raise new questions. But my intent was definitely for readers to be able to look back and say, "oh, man, I didn't even realize when X happened that it was setting up something for a few books later."
MJP: One of Isabella's naturalist skills is drawing well to record the different kinds of dragons she studies, and each of the books has half a dozen beautiful pencil illustrations of creatures and places that she visits. The covers and these interior drawings are by Todd Lockwood, and they're wonderfully appropriate as well as beautiful. Was it hard to get your publisher, Tor, to include drawings? (My first career was as a designer, and I love the artwork in your books.)
Tor was never resistant to the idea of having the pictures; the debates we had were all around how to go about doing it. For example, would they pay for the art, or would I? That had implications for what I'd be licensed to do with it after the books were published. How many sketches in each book? Would they be integrated with the text, or set on their own pages? And then they went above and beyond that; if you see the hard covers, they have what are called three-piece cases, where the spine is a separate piece from the front and back boards, and for each book the colors are chosen to coordinate with the cover art. The text is printed in ink that also matches the cover. The edges of the pages are deckled, which imitates the way old books looked, where you actually had to cut the folded edges of the sheets before you could start reading. You only see that if you get the har dcovers — and the later printings of at least some of the books step back on the bells and whistles — but it means the books are just beautiful physical objects in every respect.
MB: In the interests of avoiding spoilers, here's one from the first book, that I think captures not only Isabella's voice but the scientific work she's engaged in:
"There are undoubtedly stranger experiences in life than sitting cross-legged on an outcropping of stone with a severed dragon head facing you like the skull of Gortos himself — indeed, I have had my share over the years — but I must say that one ranks fairly high.
Especially when one begins conversing with the head. "This is most undignified for you," I confided to the staring eyes, their green filming over with grey already. "My apologies. You were on your way to find breakfast, and instead you found us. I don't suppose it would comfort you to know how much we are learning? No, I imagine not."
The jaws remained silent and shut. (A good thing, too, or I would have fallen to my death from that stone in shock.)
"Why are you attacking people?" I mused, turning the head so I could draw its profile. Relesku had helpfully cut through the spine several vertebrae down from the skull, leaving the ruff undamaged, like a proud fan of stony plates. I was surprised to find them stiffly flexible to the touch. "Of course, you may not have harmed anyone. But what about your kin? Not that you could have told us if you knew. Do you communicate with one another at all, beyond mating and territorial disputes? Do rock-wyrms have some way of signaling that there is a fat, unguarded flock of sheep the next valley over?"
"What are you doing?" Jacob asked from behind me. My pencil skidded across the paper as I squawked and nearly toppled over. "My apologies," he said, all contrition; but then — "Were you talking to the skull?"
"No," I said, and then, "Perhaps," which as responses go is not very good for covering up the truth."
MJP: Now that Isabella has finished her memoirs, what are you working on?
MB: I'm currently in research mode for another book in that setting. The elevator pitch for that one is that it concerns Lady Trent's grand-daughter, black market antiquities smugglers, and the translation of a lost epic from the Draconean civilization. I've spent the past month or so reading several of the world's great epics — the Mahabharata, the Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Popol Vuh so far — because it's going to be something of a mosaic novel; the text will switch back and forth between segments of the epic as they translate it, and the various hijinks that are happening with the translators along the way. So I'll get to flex my muscles on a bit of a higher-fantasy level in the mythological segments, while also exploring what the world looks like around the time that Isabella was publishing her memoirs.
MJP: Thus endeth the gushing. <G> Thanks so much for visiting the Word Wenches, Marie!
Your publisher, Tor, will give away a copy of A Natural History of Dragons to get people hooked. The book will be given to one commenter between now and midnight tomorrow. So tell us what you think about dragons and adventurous ladies with acerbic tongues!