RogerBW's Blog

Voyage of the Basilisk, Marie Brennan 28 October 2015

2015 fantasy of sorts: third volume of the memoirs of Lady Trent, alternate-Victorian naturalist specialising in dragons. Aboard the Royal Survey Ship Basilisk, Lady Trent travels round the world to study dragons wherever they may be found.

This is probably the closest thing to a modern picaresque that I've read: the incidents are very loosely connected with each other, and while there's some structure of plot within each one there's very little overall progression. There's not much by way of introduction to the world (I didn't realise when I picked this up that there had been two preceding volumes), and while the protagonist's home culture is clearly this world's equivalent of England there are sudden surprises, like her revulsion to discover that while sick with fever she has been fed broth made with pork.

There are a not-Russia, not-Mexico, not-China, not-Thailand and not-Pacific-Islands here too. Indeed, the background seems curiously un-inventive; of course it has to be a separate world to provide the variety of dragons and dragon-like life-forms that pique our heroine's interest, and those are the author's focus, but it feels odd that the nations should be such very close parallels to our own.

The dragons of this world aren't the giant, fire-breathing sort, and along with that shrinkage in scope there's very little action here, just a little bit right at the end when Brennan seems to feel there's a need for steampunk credentials and introduces an airship. (With structure made out of preserved dragon-bone, for strength and lightness.) And an unfortunate stumbling-point for me at least:

Now, with the wind in our faces, I felt our speed at last, as I had not when we flew over the featureless nighttime sea.

Er, in an airship, you generate your velocity relative to the wind anyway. Technology is otherwise Victorian, with Standard Diving Dress explicitly mentioned but most ships still powered by sail.

Brennan's clearly trying to give Lady Trent a modern sensibility, so by contrast with historical naturalists (who were largely happy to slaughter the creatures they studied by the thousand) she regrets the deaths of her specimens, at least sometimes, and particularly that the knowledge of preservation of dragon-bone – a technique she invented, which has got out – has led to the creatures' being hunted. When dealing with the native peoples of the not-Pacific Islands, she's rather more Margaret Murray than E. B. Tylor.

But the principal business of the narration is forming theories, testing them, and discarding or refining them. While the trappings are fantastic, this is most definitely fiction about science, and because it's about imaginary science rather than the real world the informed modern reader can't say "ah, but that was the wrong answer".

A curious and often slow book, but one with a compelling narrative voice and an attitude to scholarship that I think could only have been written by someone who has been a scholar. I continue to have mixed feelings about it: it's extremely good at what it does, and I admire it for that, but what it does isn't quite what I want from a book.

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  1. Posted by Ashley R Pollard at 12:19pm on 29 October 2015

    I doff my hat to you for your intestinal fortitude for reading potential Hugo nominees.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 12:36pm on 29 October 2015

    I thought I might make a bit of an effort, and this was one of the better ones. I haven't yet decided whether I'm going to try to track down short story/novelette/novella candidates.

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