My rating: 4 stars
The adventurous Isabella may be a woman in a fantasy setting, but the challenges she had to face to be accepted as a dragon naturalist mirror those from the real world. In the fourth instalment of The Memoirs of Lady Trent, In the Labyrinth of Drakes, Marie Brennan continues to explore various current themes, such as women’s rights, social classes and the ethics behind scientific methods. As those who have read A Natural History of Dragons, The Tropic of Serpents and Voyage of the Basilisk already know, this series has evident anthropological, scientific and social components.
Thomas Wilker, an old-time colleague of Isabella’s who participated in all her exploits, was offered a place as a dragon naturalist at the Scirling Royal Army. Seeing that he would only accept the position if Isabella joined him, she became their employee as well. It wasn’t easy for the army to accept a woman in their midst, however. Their mission was to go to Akhia to discover how to breed dragons. Their bones are light but immensely strong. Although they decay really fast after a dragon’s death, there is a method for preserving them. In order for the army to have a steady supply of bones, dragons had to be bred. Killing the ones in existence wasn’t a viable solution, as that would only lead to their extinction.
In Akhia, a couple of reunions awaited Isabella. The first one was with her brother Andrew, who was in the army and asked to be sent there to see her. She was delighted to be able to spend some time with him again, since he was one of the few relatives that she truly loved. She also encountered an old friend, which resulted in renewed gossip that almost created further complications for her work. Isabella, fortunately, didn’t always behave in a way that was deemed socially acceptable for a woman.
The dragons already in captivity had been mutilated so they couldn’t fly. Isabella understood why the naturalist they replaced had done that, but she didn’t fully approve. Scientific methods should take into consideration the well-being of the animals. When she saw them, she immediately realised that they were unhappy. Isabella became particularly attached to one of the dragons, Lumpy, who had a defect in his bones that made him too heavy for his size. The species of dragons that she had encountered in previous books were not the ones that we imagine straightaway. But the desert drakes of Akhia are, which was exciting for her. How she describes the common perception we have of dragons possibly alludes to the dragon of The Hobbit, Smaug.
“They are in many respects the quintessential dragons, the sort that come to mind the instant one hears the word. Scales as gold as the sun, giving rise to legends that dragons hoard gold and sleep atop mountainous piles of it, until their hides are plated with the precious metal; fiery breath that sears like the desert summer itself.”
Isabella is not averse to taking risks to learn more about dragons. Thus, they ventured into the desert to observe dragons in the wild. There were rebellious tribes there and consequently political trouble, which could be related to their presence in Akhia. The political aspects are slightly confusing at times, although not as much as in other books in the series. This instalment lacks further background information about the location it’s set in, so it would be easier to understand the arrangements in place between Akhia and Scirling. The series is set in a fantasy world, but all regions mentioned mirror aspects from Earth. Akhia shares similarities with Arab countries in terms of climate, architecture and customs.
Throughout the novel, there are various noteworthy mentions to the difficulties that women had to face to be accepted in the scientific community and to how they were supposed to behave in society. But men from the lower classes also struggled to be seen as equals and have their work acknowledged. In order to achieve the same level of recognition, both had to work much harder than men from a privileged background.
“To be so exceptional, they could no longer shut us out; and having done that, to hope that those who came after might be judged on equal terms with those who should be their peers.”
Social issues aside, the book is at its best when it focuses on the characters’ most intimate concerns, after all the series is written as if it were a real memoir. In the preface, Isabella assumes that readers already know about her discovery in the Labyrinth of Drakes, so she states that she will mention it, despite focusing more on the personal side of that tale. Isabella was very outspoken and that characteristic is behind some of the best moments in the book. She tried to keep her feelings to herself but failed. The recollection of that particular time in her life is both glorious and hilarious. Isabella and Andrew’s interactions are also amusing at times. Their sibling affection feels real, and he understood the personal reasons behind some of her actions better than anyone else.
In the Labyrinth of Drakes is both thought-provoking and entertaining. Although it derives from events mentioned in previous books, it also introduces a new adventure, while leaving us eager to read the next and final instalment in the series.