My rating: 4 stars
Those who enjoy a fusion of fantasy with scientific and anthropological elements may have already heard of the book series The Memoirs of Lady Trent by Marie Brennan. Lady Trent, also known merely as Isabella, is a respected dragon naturalist who is recounting how she managed to achieve that status. Voyage of the Basilisk is the third instalment in the series, after A Natural History of Dragons and The Tropic of Serpents. In order to comprehensively review it, I’ll have to mention some of the events revealed in the two previous books. So, if you haven’t read them, I advise you not to read ahead.
The curiosity of the readers is aroused right since the beginning of the book. In the preface, Isabella introduces what she will recall in this part of her memoirs in a compelling manner. She will reveal what happened during her two-year journey aboard of the Royal Survey Ship Basilisk. Although she has written about it in other occasions, those texts were not totally accurate, since a high-ranking officer in His Majesty’s Royal Navy had forbidden her from telling all the truth at the time of the events. We are also to be given an insight into more personal matters, as it’s requited from a memoir.
Accompanying her during the expedition were her son, Jake, who was then 9 years old, Tom Wilker and Abby, her new governess. Natalie Oscott, who had become her live-in companion, since being disowned by her father for going to Eriga, remained in Scirland. Their purpose was to find draconian species, in order to study their biology and actions, which leads to a discussion about the distinction between true dragons and other draconian creatures.
One of their first stops was in Namiquitlan, where they hoped to see feathered serpents. As they were approaching the shore, they saw a man diving from a cliff, who Isabella later became acquainted with. His name was Suhail, and he was an archaeologist who was studying the Draconeans, an ancient civilisation. They had worshipped dragons, raising the question if they had managed to “domesticate them”. He knew where they could find the feathered serpents and volunteered to take them there. The creatures could be found at the remains of the Draconean city he was examining. They managed to see a female one at the top of one of the six pyramids located amidst the jungle.
Isabella recounts many of the situations that took place during their expedition. At first, they don’t seem to be developing into a proper conflict and subsequent resolution. That only ends up happening later on in the book. Nevertheless, I was enjoying reading about the various occurrences anyway, because both the characters and their actions are engrossing enough. The narration of dangerous situations is particularly enthralling and full of tension. This book just feels different from the previous two, whose events are mentioned more than once throughout the story.
Isabella and Tom struggled to obtain the necessary papers to enter Va Hing legally. Tom suspected that happened because people thought their aim was to sabotage any further activities being pursued regarding dragonbone. We know from the previous book that, before they left for Eriga, the Marquess of Canlan stole their research on the preservation of dragonbone and then sold it to the Va Ren Shipping Association, which was based in Va Hing. As the secret behind the possibility of preserving dragonbone was now known to others, the need to find a synthetic substitute was even more urgent.
Voyage of the Basilisk, as the preceding books in the series, reveals a great deal of imagination. Marie Brennan crafted a world that features a variety of species that may be related to dragons, visually described fictional cities and created an array of different cultures. However, she also took inspiration from our world. There is the possibility that climate change also happened in the story in the past, leading to the rising of sea levels, changes in species and to their movement to other locations.
But the book also delves into gender identity and various other social issues, including the difficulties faced by women. Isabella opened her library to those who didn’t have easy-access to scientific knowledge, particularly women. That idea stemmed from realising that it was really difficult to find a governess for her son who knew history, languages, literature and various sciences. On the other hand, her not having a husband was an advantage to attract applicants, because they wouldn’t have to face the possibility of being sexually harassed. It’s a shame that the first chapters focusing on what happened before they embarked on their journey felt slightly rushed.
Isabella had no qualms putting herself into dangerous situations for her love for dragons. Nevertheless, she was trying to be more restrained in her actions, seeing that her son was with her. We are given insights into how she educated him. She hoped that one day Jake would also develop an interest in dragons, but he was more in awe of the life aboard the ship and desired to become a sailor. So, it was with a certain satisfaction that she handled his plea for her to go swim with him in order to see the dragon turtles, despite not having the appropriate clothes. Inappropriate women behaviour is a topic repeatedly mentioned throughout the book. It was not deemed appropriate for her to walk around without any chaperon. Her divulging in various letters to publications that her companions were only men in certain occasions didn’t help. At home, they thought her dignity was completely lost.
It now seems to me that all of the books in The Memoirs of Lady Trent series will be connected not only by the presence of its heroine and friends but also by the consequences of her first discovery – that dragonbone can be preserved. Voyage of the Basilisk was an enthralling read, albeit one that may feel more relevant after I finish reading the series in its entirety.