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.

Previous Older Entries