Cold Forged Flame – Marie Brennan

Tor are doing some interesting things as a publisher at the moment. Chief among them, is their focus on shorter form fiction, particularly novellas. It’s a market that is at least in part driven by the popularity of Kindle Singles – shorter works that can be read in a single sitting. I tend to be a fan of longer works, particularly big multi-part series where each individual volume is so long that the author’s name and the title can be written on the spine horizontally rather than vertically. But there’s a real appeal to shorter works. Done well they can explore ideas in a crisp way, and like the best tapas be full of intense heat and flavour but without ever feeling like a heavy meal.  
Cold Forged Flame by Marie Brennan is one of those novellas, intended to be the first in a series. The story is a relatively simple one: a being is summoned and bound to carry out a task laid on her. She must travel to a particular item and return with some of the blood from the cauldron of the witch who lives there. This being has no memory of who she is, and does not even have a name, but she is bound to carry out the task. Along the way she faces the traditional perils of monsters and geography, before reaching the witch and bargaining for what she has been asked to collect.  
Brennan has spoken about the genesis of this work and character as lying with a D&D character she created and has played many times. But to me, Cold Forged Flame works more as a metaphor for creation and story-telling itself. Brennan’s protagonist and the world she is brought into are blank canvases that are slowly revealed as more detail becomes laid upon them, particularly once the main character gains a companion on her quest. It’s a relationship that lies outside the strictures of her quest, forcing her to engage in a different and more thoughtful way with the world around her. And the transaction at the end of the quest itself (the exchange of blood for inspiration and vice versa) is a stylised representation of the act of artistic creation.   
Goodreads rating: 3*

The Memoirs of Lady Trent (1-3) – Marie Brennan

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)