Recent Reading: The complete Memoirs of Lady Trent series by Marie Brennan

I didn’t set out to read the whole series. I have recently been too distracted by real-life stuff . . . that is, by the puppies, of course . . . to work on anything of my own, so I thought this would be a good time to read the final couple books of this series, which had been on my physical-book shelves since whenever they came out. (Checking, I see the final book came out in 2017, so that hasn’t been so very long by my standards.)

So I went back and re-read the third book to get back into the series, since I’d only read it once. Then I went on to the fourth book. Only I didn’t have the fourth book, it turned out. Or if I did, it was buried somewhere in a pile of books, not on the shelf where it belonged. The fifth was right there, but not the fourth! How annoying, when you think you have all the books of a series and settle down to read them and then one is missing! So I had to order it, and while waiting, I went back and re-read the second and then the first books. So I read the whole series, only inside out, starting in the middle and then going backward before getting the fourth book and going forward.

And yes, I could have gotten the fourth book in ebook format, but (a) I don’t like to break a series up in different editions like that; and (b) the covers and artwork and physical appearance of this series are THE BEST, so I honestly wanted the hardcovers. Here they are, in all their naturalistic glory:

Which is your favorite cover? I find it impossible to choose. Perhaps the fourth. Or possibly the first. They’re all so good. The interior artworks is also excellent. So few books get to have interior art, yet it’s such a plus when one does. Or at least, I think so.

Now that I’ve finally finished the series, how do I like it?

I like it a lot — the overall story as much as the artwork and covers

Way back when I read the first book, I saw various criticisms of the ethnocentric attitude of the protagonist and also criticism of the protagonist’s attitude regarding killing the occasional dragon for the purposes of studying its anatomy. My own perception is very different from that of such critics because unlike them (I surmise), I have read actual nineteenth-century books by actual nineteenth-century naturalists, recounting their travels to China or wherever to acquire specimens for museums and so on. Let me tell you, Marie Brennan toned those kinds of attitudes WAY down to make her books more accessible to modern readers. WAY WAY down. She left just barely enough to capture the general “feel” or “tone” of that class of British naturalist, which she did with amazing success. This actually reminds me of Gillian Bradshaw’s historicals set in Classical Greece or Rome. There again, Bradshaw toned down various cultural attributes, such as the general compete indifference to the suffering of unrelated people, in order to make her stories accessible to modern readers. When you’re writing historicals – which the Memoirs of Lady Trent are, in a very real sense, despite the secondary world setting – then that is something the author is going to have to do.

Also, I think the critics were wrong in a more basic sense, as the Isabella, Lady Trent, becomes aware of her insular attitudes in the very first book and shows a great deal of personal growth very quickly – more quickly than is perhaps plausible – shedding ethnocentric attitudes left and right and becoming far more able to deal with highly diverse cultures. This stands her in good stead late in the series, when she –

Ah, never mind. Important spoiler there, if you have not actually read the full series.

Okay, so, spoiler-free comments below:

a) The whole series is excellent, with unusual consistency in quality throughout. My favorite may be the third book. Or maybe the fourth. Or possibly the fifth.

b) There’s a lot of intellectual enjoyment here. The nearest equivalent to this series that I can think of is the Steerswoman series by Rosemary Kirstein. That is different in many ways (plus unfortunately unfinished as yet) but still very similar in, if you will, attitude. If you loved one series, you should certainly try the other, though the tone of the Lady Trent series is drier and, since it’s in memoir form, feels much less immediate.

Another comparison might be CJC’s Foreigner series. Again, very different in a lot of ways, and yet I do think it’s an apt comparison. Imagine the Foreigner series as told in memoir form by Ilisidi, and honestly you might get rather close to the Lady Trent series. That one would give you more of a focus on politics, of course, and no dragons, but still. (Wouldn’t Ilisidi’s memoirs make fascinating reading!)

c) Although I predicted some events (that were admittedly clearly forecast), I totally did not expect the big thing that happened in the fifth book. I was taken by surprise even though I suspected some aspects of that thing. Brennan set it up cleverly.

d) These are mostly slowish in pace, so the reader should ideally be in the mood to settle down and enjoy that kind of story. Because Isabella is, let’s say, not especially emotionally volatile, a reader who enjoys an intellectual journey rather than a lot of emoting will probably enjoy this series more than other readers.

Not to stereotype YA literature, but let us say that if a reader has mostly been into YA, this series might come as something of a departure. I’m tempted to recommend it just for that reason. Diverse in many ways, modern YA seems pretty uniform in preferring emotional intensity, immediacy of “feel,” fast pace, and teenage protagonists. I believe it’s regrettable that young readers today are essentially being told that they should only be able identify with teen protagonists and only enjoy highly emotional stories. This series showcases an entirely different style. I would have loved it as a teenaged reader – a naturalist view of dragons! – and I’m sure some of today’s younger readers would too, especially if they tend toward science and animal behavior, as I did.

e) The science behind the dragons is implausible, but delightful. I don’t buy that you could get, say, varying numbers of limbs in this way. Nevertheless, it’s fun to take environmentally induced lability of development – which of course is very much a real thing – and run with it. This book almost reads like science fiction rather than fantasy; hence the comparisons that come to my mind are not fantasy. The memoir format offers a great advantage, as Isabella is able to make offhanded comments about the state of scientific knowledge during the entire span of her life to date. That’s one of the (many) techniques Brennan uses to make the science in the series feel so real.

This series reminds me of my longstanding desire to redesign the high school science curriculum as a history of science curriculum, something that treats science as a process and an attitude and a type of thought and a mode of discovery, rather than the way it is actually taught, as a handful of Revealed Truths, or actually Revealed Science-y Factoids. I think the reason people today are so susceptible to magical thinking and pseudoscience is that we do not teach any science at all in primary or secondary school, or for that matter in college. We just teach Factoids of Science, as Revealed by the Teacher. Well, never mind, that’s a rant for another day.

Back to the Lady Trent series. Final thought: this series has to be in the all-time top ten for sheer beauty of the actual physical books. Major kudos to the Tor production team for every single design decision that went into this series. Just a fabulous job. There is hardly another series out there where I would deliberately choose to get the hardcovers – even though I now need reading glasses to comfortably read them! – rather than the ebooks. I hear the audio version is also very good, which is great, but again, hardcovers all the way for me for this series. I always keep one or another volume turned face-out on my shelves so that I can enjoy the covers every time I pass through my library.

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9 thoughts on “Recent Reading: The complete Memoirs of Lady Trent series by Marie Brennan”

  1. Regarding how science is taught: I usually had enough resources and prior knowledge to have some more understanding of concepts than what the teacher actually discussed, but when they started talking about electron clouds and orbitals, I wanted to know how someone could determine something like that. The teacher was pissed and viewed my questions as a challenge of authority, which just reinforced my initial impression that this seemed like bs. It was extremely frustrating. Totally get where you’re coming from.

  2. Love this series. I love the process, the hard work, the “gray years”, the relationships, the time that passes between books; everything is so beautifully intertwined and not in a forced way.

    Yes, it is surprisingly similar to the Steerswoman series. Also Wrede’s Frontier Magic series, which although it has magic does have that science-is-cool-and-also-hard-work vibe. I wonder if we can come up with a top 10 list of works with a similar attitude.

  3. We should try. You are quite right about Wrede’s series. Maybe a top five list at least.

  4. I tried the first one of this series a few years back and couldn’t get into it … but I’m wondering if that was just that particular season of my life. I’ll have to see if the local library has a copy and give it another go. I’m finding myself preferring slower, more thoughtful fiction in general these days. And I entirely agree with your thoughts on teaching science!

  5. The books are gorgeous – I think my favorite cover is the third or fourth – and I’ve read explorer memoirs – she caught the attitude while softening it. I never finished book 2, though, and don’t remember why. Maybe it just wasn’t the right book at the right time.

    No ideas coming forth for an entry on the top five list… Except a non-fiction, Newton and then Counterfeiter which took remarkably little space to show Newton’s hard work at alchemy and physics – and then linked alchemy to his ire about counterfeiters when he was Warden of the Mint. And shows his work for fixing the monetary problems that got him the position in the first place.

  6. I’d been considering reading this, but kept putting it off. Your recommendation finally tipped the scales, and I bought the whole series as a single eBook. Without a doubt, one of my favorite series ever. I found it utterly gripping from start to finish. Since I only read about an hour a day, it’s been something to look forward to for the past several weeks. Thanks for this post!

  7. Thank you for letting me know, Robert! Glad to have prompted you to read something you turned out to love!

  8. The Alpennia series by Heather Rose Jones is one that I think comes a bit close to Lady Trent in depicting historical scientific (or quasi-scientific) investigation in a fantasy setting (a Europe of the 1820s but where some prayers seem to be able to regularly cause “miracles”). There the main characters are trying to work out the “laws” of magic and the “science” of alchemy, but the process is similarly slow, uncertain, and full of partial answers and frustrations. And it is made fairly clear to the reader that the provisional understanding of the metaphysics of the universe that the main characters come to still has pieces missing.

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