Marie Brennan: Turning Darkness Into Light

One of my favorite science fiction/fantasy series of the last decade (or ever, for that matter) has been Marie Brennan’s Memoirs of Lady Trent, beginning with A Natural History of Dragons in 2013 and ending, alas, with Within the Sanctuary of Wings in 2017. So I was delighted to spot Turning Darkness Into Light last summer.

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Why it sat in one of my To Be Read stacks this long I have no idea, perhaps so I’d know I had one more book to read set in Lady Trent’s world, which is like our own in many ways, from its pseudo-Victorian social structures to its vaguely familiar (but strangely named) geography, but totally different in others, most especially the existence of a wide variety of dragons (non-sentient wild animals) and the remains of the ancient and mysterious Draconean civilization.

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Turning Darkness Into Light tells the story of Lady Trent’s granddaughter, Audrey Camherst, a philologist studying the clay tablets left behind by the ancient Draconeans. When she is recruited to translate a recently discovered cache of ancient tablets by Lord Gleinleigh, a collector of antiquities and the discoverer of the tablets (and a rather unpleasant fellow), she takes the job against her better judgment: Lord Gleinliegh’s restrictions seem unreasonable and his estate is isolated and unwelcoming. But the lure of previously undeciphered tablets is too much to resist. The project leads Audrey and her allies into misadventure, danger, conspiracy, and revelation.

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If you haven’t read the five books of Lady Trent’s memoirs, Turning Darkness Into Light will probably be wildly confusing, not to mention that it is full of spoilers for the earlier books (which is why I’m not going into more detail here). If you have read the series, this book provides many answers to “so what happened next?”

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Turning Darkness Into Light is an epistolary novel (something I love), told in the form of diary entries, letters, translations of the tablets, occasional newspaper clippings, and even a couple of police reports. Most of the story is told from Audrey’s point of view, but quite a variety of other characters have a chance to chime in, including Lady Trent herself.

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Perhaps I find this series so fascinating because I share a background in anthropology, archeology and folklore with Brennan, or because I love the alternate world premise, or just because I’m blown away by Brennan’s imagination and writing skill, but I highly recommend all six books. One of these years I’ll have time to reread them all (paper copies on my keeper shelf) without the year or two wait between volumes.

Memory and Magic

The recent cyber-discussion about favorite childhood books on one of my writers’ loops brought back a lot of memories, of places as well as books.  Libraries, mostly.

When I was about six years old, my family moved from one suburb of Milwaukee to another, into a house located only a short walk from the local public library.  The short walk included crossing a busy intersection, but my mother loved books as much as I did, so it never took much persuasion to make the trip.  A couple of years later, Whitefish Bay built a new library, and this one was around the corner, across no streets, and required no adult supervision.  I read my way through the children’s section before we moved again just before I turned ten.

We landed in Coral Gables, a suburb of Miami, and I soon found the library, not far from my elementary school.  It was a wonderful old building, thick-walled, not air conditioned, probably long since replaced by something more modern.  I was in the fifth grade, and no one expected me to stay in the children’s section.  I had a real library card, and I knew how to use it.

Which brings me back to favorite books.  One of the first books I remember checking out of that library was The Incomplete Enchanter, by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, containing the first two Harold Shea stories, written in the 1940s, about a bored psychologist who discovers a method of visiting the worlds of mythology and literature through mathematics and logic.  I know, that makes no sense at all, but the stories were wonderful:  in “The Roaring Trumpet,” Harold aimed for Ireland and landed in Norse mythology on the eve of Ragnarok, and in “The Mathematics of Magic” he and his colleague Reed Chalmers visit Spenser’s Faerie Queen.  I was hooked.  I wanted more.

Fortunately more was available, in The Castle of Iron, full of noble ladies and jousting knights, and an ending that left one of Harold’s companions behind in Xanadu, and then in The Wall of Serpents, a visit to Finnish mythology.  For years the Science Fiction Book Club carried an omnibus called The Compleat Enchanter, which contained the first three stories.  I know I read that several times, along with a battered paperback copy of The Wall of Serpents (which may have included the short story “The Green Magician,” in which Harold and his friends finally made it to Ireland).

Somewhere along the years, I was shocked to discover, the books disappeared from my shelves.  So I went hunting and discovered a new edition, The Mathematics of Magic, in which the NESFA Press has rescued the series, including two later stories written by de Camp (after Pratt’s death).  I ordered it, of course, and so far I am not disappointed.  I’ve finished “The Roaring Trumpet,” remembering much of it as I read, including the memorable line “Yngvi is a louse.”  Well, it must be a memorable line–it stuck with me for a lot of years.  Harold’s “syllogismobile” doesn’t make any more sense now than it did back then, but the internal logic of the stories is perfectly rational, and marvelously entertaining.

I’ve also discovered that there are two more Enchanter books, edited by de Camp and Christopher Stasheff, collections of stories in Harold Shea’s many universes written by authors who also loved the original Enchanter series.  Unfortunately both of them, The Enchanter Reborn and The Exotic Enchanter, are out of print.  Fortunately, thanks to the Internet and sites like Alibris, that no longer means out of reach.