Marie Brennan’s fictional memoirs of the natural historian and adventuress Isabella Camherst are an utter delight. They are full of verve, wit and adventure, but are also not beyond commentary on issues of gender, race, class, colonialism and empire.
Isabella Camherst defies societal gender norms to pursue her passion for science, in the mould of pioneering historical adventuresses such as Isabella Bird or Lady Hester Stanhope. All of the novels make much of the challenges she faces as a woman, whether it is the struggle to be accepted as a credible scientist, the challenges of mounting expeditions overseas or the confining restrictions of the gender roles in her society.
We gain a window into her childhood in A Natural History of Dragons: her early passion for natural history formed through a series of tomboyish scrapes. It is only through the relative freedom she gains from her marriage to the (otherwise unremarkable) Jacob Camherst and the friendship of a rich and powerful patron in the form of Lord Hilford that she is able to pursue her interests. A trip to Vystrana to study the local rock-wyrms turns into a glorious Scooby-Doo style mystery story full of smugglers, mysterious ruins left by the ancient Draconean civilisation and bemused locals.
In the second novel, The Tropic of Serpents, Brennan sends Mrs Camherst into the jungles and savannah’s of Eriga. On the surface this this reads like an H Rider Haggard-style adventure, but it has shades of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Uncomfortable themes of racism and unequal colonial relationships between nations are explored, and Mrs Camherst starts to acquire a scandalous reputation.
That reputation is cemented during the events of the third novel, The Voyage of the Basilisk, which is published on 31 March 2015 (I received an eARC from NetGalley). Mrs Camherst embarks on a round-the-world voyage to study dragons, lizards and sea-serpents in order to inform a planned revised taxonomy. The voyage inevitably makes the novel more episodic, and much of it hinges on Mrs Camherst’s friendship with the Akhian archaeologist Suhail. But there is a hefty dose of international diplomacy and espionage thrown in as well.
Presenting all of these stories from the perspective of the more mature Lady Trent that Isabella Camherst becomes removes any sense of peril in these stories (though that is not to say that genuinely shocking things don’t happen). But this allows Brennan to have her narrator reflect on her actions with the perspective of years, often with wry humour.
Inevitably, there are comparisons to be made with Naomi Novik’s Temeraire novels (think Napoleonic Wars, but with a Royal Flying Corps based around dragons – all stiff upper lip and Boy’s Own adventure), but Brennan has the edge with more diverse stories with greater depth.
GoodReads rating – 4* (all books)