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.


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.


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.


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?”


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.


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.

Scattered Science Fiction

The science fiction genre encompasses as much variety of content and style as any other, and I enjoy most of them. Here are three quite different examples I’ve read recently.


Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent series (which treats its dragons as wild animals rather than Within the Sanctuary of Wingsthe sentient beings so popular in science fiction and fantasy) is set in a world comparable to our own in many ways but wildly different in others. I let Within the Sanctuary of Wings sit on my shelf for a long time, and took my time reading it, knowing it was the last of the series; I didn’t want it to end. This fifth volume of Lady Trent’s memoirs started a bit slowly, but in good time Isabella makes her greatest discovery, and with the help of her loyal supporting cast solves the problems that come along with it.


I wouldn’t recommend this as a stand alone–you want to read the whole series. In fact, I want to read them all again, one of these days, without the yearly wait for the next volume. My only complaint about the series is with Tor’s decision to print the books in odd-colored inks (brownish, reddish, or blueish) probably to better serve the wonderful illustrations, but a bit hard on older eyes.


If you’ve been following the action in Veronica Scott’s science fiction romance novels set in the Sectors universe, adventures on far flung star ships and colony planets, you’ll Songbirdrecognize some of the supporting actors in Star Cruise: Songbird, a novella originally published in the Pets In Space anthology, but the story works perfectly well as a stand alone. The pet in this tale is Valkyr, a telepathic Qaazimir war eagle bonded to Grant Barton, recently retired from the Sectors military and now working security on the cruise ship Nebula Zephyr. Grant finds himself handling ship-board security for celebrity entertainer Karissa Dawnstar, a famous and widely beloved singer. Not exactly what he signed on for, but his instincts—and Valkyr’s—take over in the face of developments. What is more dangerous, a mob of adoring fans, a lovelorn stalker, or a pair of strangely devoted monks?


I thoroughly enjoy Scott’s tales, and this one was no exception. Valkyr is as much a character as the hero and heroine, and even manages a bit of romance himself. I’m not sure I’d want to sign on for a cruise on the Nebula fleet—you never know what disaster awaits—but they certainly are fun to read about.


Lois McMaster Bujold’s long standing series centered around Miles Vorkosigan has been a favorite of mine for a long time. She writes of humanity (if sometimes genetically modified) spread widely through the universe, and the books vary from military science fiction to science fiction romance.


The Flowers of VashnoiThe Flowers of Vashnoi is a novella, a little gift from Bujold to her legion of fans. Set after Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, it follows Ekaterin Vorkosigan’s discoveries in the radiation-riddled Vashnoi territory and her attempts to bring about restoration of the land. Miles makes a brief appearance, but this is Ekaterin’s story. Someday I’m going to find the time to reread the entire Vorkosigan saga.


As the years go by (that is, since 2011, when I bought my first Kindle), I find myself reading more and more on e-readers. Along with the general ease of handling and reading, access to hundreds of books on a gadget that fits in my purse, and the instant gratification of downloading a book whenever I want it, I find the easy availability of novellas like Scott’s and Bujold’s to be a real benefit.


Three SFF Novels

I’ve fallen way behind on quick reviews, but I’m trying to catch up. Here are three favorite SFF novels from last year.

The MartianI avoided reading The Martian, by Andy Weir, for a long time for fear it would be depressing. An astronaut abandoned alone on Mars with limited supplies and no hope of rescue? Hey, I’ve read some pretty depressing science fiction in my time. Unlike romance, SF doesn’t come with the guarantee of a happy ending. But after a couple of friends recommended it, I picked up a copy.

And I loved it. Mark Watney, the protagonist and narrator (through his log entries), is a wonderful character, optimistic, determined, and endlessly ingenious. His specialty in botany comes in surprisingly handy on the dead red planet, and (since astronauts always have more than one specialty) being a mechanical engineer and general fix-it guy is even handier.

Although Mark and his adventures (if it can go wrong, it does, of course, but that’s just another challenge to Mark) hold center stage through the novel, we also, in due time, meet the earthbound NASA folks struggling to rescue him, as well as the crew of the Ares 3, now on their way back to Earth without him.

Draw your own conclusions from the fact that I enjoyed this book (and marveled at the author’s scientific knowledge and research) right down to (and including) the last page. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, too, but they had to leave out a lot, of course. If you liked the movie, read the book, too.


Voyage of the Basilisk is Marie Brennan’s third Memoir by Lady Trent. I love this series, at least in part because Brennan and I share a background in anthropology, archeology, and folklore, which she puts Voyage of the Basiliskto wonderful and detailed use in constructing Isabella Camherst’s pseudo-Victorian world. In this volume, set several years after The Tropic of Serpents, Isabella sets off with her colleague Tom Wilker, her son Jake (now nine years old), and Jake’s governess aboard the research and trading ship Basilisk in search of new dragons to investigate and record.

Along the way, Isabella and her friends meet sea serpents, fire-lizards, dragon-turtles, and even a very angry Komodo dragon, are expelled from one territory and shipwrecked in another, and make some new discoveries about dragon bone and fire stone. Isabella includes in this memoir a good many things she did not send home to the Winfield Courier (one of the sponsors of her expedition), including her friendship with an attractive Akhian archeologist who joins her party.

Voyage of the Basilisk answers some questions and raises new ones. The next volume, In the Labyrinth of the Drakes, will be out (and on my doorstep) on April 5.


Naomi Novik’s Crucible of Gold is the seventh installement in the saga of the Napoleonic Wars and Dragons, another series I love. While Marie Brennan’s dragons are wild animals of interest to her naturalist heroine, Novik’s dragons are intelligent and participate in society in a wide variety of ways.

Crucible of GoldTemeraire and his captain, Will Laurence, are respectively the dragon and human protagonists of Novik’s series, and this volume finds them pulled out of retirement and disgrace in Australia and sent to aid the Portuguese Royal Family, besieged in Brazil by African and French forces. Most of the novel follows their journey across the Pacific and South America, meeting one disaster after another. The book felt a bit like a long transition between book six (Tongues of Serpents) and book eight (Blood of Tyrants), but the writing is so good and the dragons so charming that I didn’t mind. Temeraire continues to refine his view of dragon/human relations as he meets new species and cultures, and the alternate history becomes more and more complex (the Inca Empire holds more than a few surprises). The ninth (and last) Temeraire novel (League of Dragons) will be waiting for me on June 14.

Recent Reading

No particular theme today, just three more books I enjoyed. I’ve been lucky so far this year—I’ve enjoyed just about all of the books I’ve read.

The Tropic of SerpentsMarie Brennan’s The Tropic of Serpents is the second volume of Memoirs by Lady Trent, although our heroine remains Mrs. Isabella Camherst, widow, mother, and dragon naturalist. In the first book, A Natural History of Dragons, Isabella and her fellow explorers made their way from their home in Scirland to the mountainous pseudo-Balkans of Brennan’s wonderfully developed world. In Tropic Isabella, leaving her toddler son behind and wondering if she is the worst mother in all of Scirland, leads her party to the world’s pseudo-Africa in search of snakes and swamp-wyrms. Once again, Isabella’s first person narration and Victorian style, as well as Brennan’s fabulous world building, captured me completely.

The preface to Tropic is signed “Lady Trent, Amavi, Prania, 23 Ventis, 5659,” reminding us just how totally not-ours Isabella’s world is. The next volume, Voyage of the Basilisk, is waiting on my shelf.

Checked Out is the latest case in Elaine Viets’ Dead end Jobs mysteries. I love this series. I’ve been following Helen Hawthorne’s adventures since she first appeared in 2003 in Shop Til You Drop. The Checked Outsettings are always fun and well researched, and the characters – Phil, Margery, Peggy, and Pete the Parrot, along with numerous less permanent visitors, continue to hold my interest.

In Checked Out, Helen goes undercover as a volunteer at a small, upscale library, searching for a John Singer Sargent water color (“Muddy Alligators,” signed on the back by Clark Gable, who lost it in a poker game in 1924) accidentally left in a donated book–somewhere in 300 boxes of books. And there appears to be a ghost, or at least a squatter, hiding in the library. Meanwhile, Phil is courting sunburn as an undercover gardener Peggy is worried about Pete’s personal life, and the new tenant at the Coronado Tropic Apartments is showing off his mojitos.

If you enjoy humorous mystery, you can’t do better than Elaine Viets.

Born With TeethOkay, so I’ve been a Star Trek fan since the original series (when I fell in love with Mr. Spock—c’mon, I wasn’t the only one), and I was delighted when Voyager came along with a female Captain. I couldn’t resist when I learned that Kate Mulgrew, Kathryn Janeway’s alter ego, had published a memoir, Born With Teeth. The book is well written, often funny, sometimes sad, always enjoyable. It ends rather abruptly around 1997, but I’m hoping (and the acknowledgments at the end suggest) that Mulgrew has another book in the works.

A Natural History of Dragons

A Natural History of DragonsMarie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent is unlike anything else I’ve read, and I loved it. The book is written in the style of a Victorian memoir, told in first person by Isabella Hendemore, a young lady fascinated from childhood by dragons. There aren’t many dragons in Scirland, although Isabella, posing as a boy, does manage to insinuate herself into the hunt for a wolfdrake plaguing the neighborhood. On her own, she experiments with sparklings, the tiny relatives of dragons long thought to be insects.

Isabella’s world begins to open wide when her brother takes her to Falchester to see the captive dragons in the King’s menagerie: a Moulish swamp-wyrm, a desert drake from Akhia, and a Vystrani rock-wyrm. Before long, she has found herself a suitable young man and a place with him on an expedition to the mountains of Vystrana to study dragons in their natural habitat.

By the time she tells this story, Isabella is Lady Trent, a mature woman and long-established scientist, dropping hints of what’s to come along the way, but this volume covers only her first expedition, full of adventures, discoveries, and disasters.  Isabella’s world is not an alternate history to ours, it is an alternate world, both familiar and entirely strange.  Isabella’s introduction to the book is dated 11 Floris, 5658, and every chapter brings some new marvel of the not-quite-expected.

Isabella and her party travel from the island nation of Scirland to the mountains of Vystrana, where they stay in a village called Drustanev, run into Stauleren smugglers (the descendants of invaders from Eiverheim stranded there two hundred years previously), and deal with all manner of local personalities and superstitions. And, of course, dragons. Not telepathic dragons, or shape-shifting dragons, or even friendly dragons, but wild dragons, the little understood objects of scientific inquiry.

I had the next volume of Isabella’s adventures, The Tropic of Serpents, on my shelf even before I read Natural History, and when I finishedThe Tropic of Serpents the first one I hurried off to Marie Brennan’s website, where I found the cover of the yet-to-be-published third book, The Voyage of the Basilisk, and the information that Lady Trent’s memoirs will extend to five volumes in all.

In addition to the spectacular cover, A Natural History of Dragons has interior drawings illustrating many of Isabella’s discoveries. It’s a fascinating, wonderful book, and I recommend it highly. I’m looking forward to visiting more parts of Isabella’s world.

Book Shopping, Again

To no one’s surprise, I’ve bought a few more books than I’ve managed to read in the last few weeks.  A couple of weeks ago I headed over to the Local Barnes & Noble to pick up a book I’d seen mentioned on a site I enjoy,  I was Three Princesresearching an article on alternate history at the time, and Ramona Wheeler’s Three Princes, a tale of 19th century intrigue in a world ruled by the Egyptian Empire sounded like just the sort of book I love.  As long as I was there, with a gift card in my wallet, I also bought Gossamer Wing, a steampunk romance by Delphine Dryden, which I’d seen on another blog I follow (Paranormal Unbound).

Yesterday I stopped at the local Half-Price Books, not looking for anything in particular.  I picked up Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons (because, well, dragons!) from the New BestsellerA Natural History of Dragons rack.  It isn’t new (the hard cover edition was released last year), just new in trade paperback, and the cover grabbed me, as did a quick look at the back blurb and the preface.  Then I wandered back through the science fiction racks and made two (possibly contradictory) decisions.  I bought a paper copy of Hugh Howey’s Wool, which I already have on my Kindle but would prefer to read on paper (the book is highly recommended by my friend Colleen Thompson), and I rejected an older paperback copy of an alternate history novel because the print was small and cramped and I know I can get it in digital format and increase the type size.

Then I went back to Barnes & Noble to look for a new book by another friend, Sharon Sala.  I have been looking forward The Curl Up and Dyeto reading The Curl Up and Dye, and I have a companion novella, Color Me Bad, waiting on my Kindle.

Of course I have also been feeding my Kindle faster than I read the books that pile up on it, too.  In the last month or so I have downloaded three Daily Deals: Why Shoot a Butler? by Georgette Heyer, Artifact by Gigi Pandian, and Bride of the Rat God by Barbara Hambly.  I try to restrain myself on the Daily Deals, and I think three in the last month is pretty restrained.  I also bought a few by writer friends: Up to the Challenge by Terri Osburn, Archer’s Sin by Amy Raby, and Draw Me In and What’s Yours is Mine by Talia Quinn.

Currently I’m reading three books, in my usual scattered fashion.  Three Princes is proving to be every bit as good as I had hoped.  The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend, by Glenn Frankel, is a fascinating work about the background and making of the famous movie.  I bought this book some time ago, after reading a review in the Houston Chronicle, but just opened it to read this weekend.  I’m having trouble putting it down.

Bride of the Rat GodAnd on my Kindle, I’m halfway through Bride of the Rat God.  I’d read several chapters before I realized that I’d read the book before, back in 1994 when it first came out (I could confirm this thanks to a slightly OCD compulsion to keep all those lists of books I’ve read on my computer–the lists actually predate the first computer by several years, and I must have typed them in after the fact).  Clearly the setting, Hollywood in the 1920s, is just as appealing twenty years later (and wonderfully described), but I’m sorry I no longer have the paperback copy, if only for its delightfully pulpy cover.