Book Review

The Voyage of the Basilisk by Marie Brennan

the voyage of the basilisk

I’m a big fan of the Lady Trent series, which began in A Natural History of Dragons and continued in The Tropic of Serpents.

Wonders terrestrial and aquatic, ancient ruins, near drownings, and more kinds of dragon than you can shake a wing at…

Six years after her perilous exploits in Eriga, Lady Trent embarks on her most ambitious expedition yet: a two-year trip around the world aboard the Royal Survey Ship Basilisk, to study all manner of dragons. From feathered serpents sunning themselves in the ruins of a fallen civilization to the mighty sea serpents of the tropics, these creatures are a source of both endless fascination and frequent peril.

Accompanying her is her young son and a chivalrous foreign archaeologist whose interests converge with Isabella s in ways both professional and personal. Science is, of course, the primary objective of the voyage, but Isabella’s life is rarely so simple. She must cope with storms, shipwrecks, intrigue, and warfare, even as she makes a discovery that offers a revolutionary new insight into the ancient history of dragons.

Isabella Camherst is such a fantastic character; I could read about her exploits all day long.  The fact that those exploits revolve around dragons is just a bonus.  The series is set in a Victorian-esque world, and as such Isabella’s “place” is certainly not sailing around the world for two years, even if that voyage is in the interests of science.  Many see her behaviour as eccentric, while to others it’s downright scandalous.  I did feel that her behaviour was becoming more accepted by this third instalment, even if most do still look on in bemusement, although her scientific findings are not always appreciated given her gender.  One of the best things about Isabella is that she doesn’t care a whit for the views of others.  I’m always put in mind of Mary Anning when reading this series.  A fossil collector and palaeontologist, Anning was treated with the same disdain as the fictional Isabella is, her findings initially dismissed, leaving her unable to join the societies and groups that were so readily available to men at the time.

Being the memoirs of Lady Trent, her adventures are shared with the reader in retrospect, many years after they occurred.  This means that there are occasional hints of what is still to come in her life, and I love these little snippets of what to expect in future instalments.  Sharing her adventures through her memoirs also allows Isabella the benefit of hindsight, and I love the way in which she owns her failures as much as her successes.  She readily admits to making mistakes without embarrassment, and this makes her such a relatable character.  This might be doing or saying the wrong thing, and in this instalment includes the sharing of theories about dragons that she herself later comes to disprove.  It’s such a pleasure to read about the progression of what is a relatively new science in this world, with all the bumps in the road that this involves.

I do recommend reading the series in order.  While each novel covers an independent journey made by Isabella, often separated by some years, I think that the reader benefits from understanding the background to her character and how she came to pursue the life of an academic, ruffling plenty of feathers to do so.  There is a potential risk with novels such as this in that they can become repetitive but, three novels in, I haven’t found this to be the case at all.  Isabella’s journeys take place in very different environments, and as such each presents unique challenges.  With some six years having passed between the events in The Tropic of Serpents, the reader can see the development in Isabella’s character during this time.  Of course, she still gets caught up in all sort of intrigue, some – but not all – of which could have been avoided.

With some fantastic supporting characters – yes, Captain Aekinitos, I’m looking at you, you crazy devil – and some thrilling adventures, The Voyage of the Basilisk is sure to satisfy fans of the series.  One element that I found particularly pleasing in this instalment is that Isabella is here able to pursue some of her own theories, and I loved that she is becoming – however slowly – more accepted by the society in which she lives.  I can’t wait to read In the Labyrinth of Drakes, which is book four in the series.

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