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Literature / A Memoir by Lady Trent

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You, dear reader, continue at your own risk. It is not for the faint of heart — no more so than the study of dragons itself. But such study offers rewards beyond compare: to stand in a dragon's presence, even for the briefest of moments — even at the risk of of one's life — is a delight that, once experienced, can never be forgotten...
Lady Trent

All the world knows Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the worlds preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the woman who brought the study of dragons out of the shadows of myth and into the light of modern science. Her scientific expeditions, taking her all around the globe, are world famous, and the scandals and rumours surrounding her are legendary. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history and dragons defied conventions.

A Memoir By Lady Trent is a series of Low Fantasy novels by Marie Brennan, starting with A Natural History of Dragons. They follow the story of Isabella Hendemore — later Isabella Camherst and finally Isabella, Lady Trent — as she begins and progresses through her career to become her world's foremost expert on dragons. Each book is written in the style of a memoir, told from Isabella's perspective as she explores a world akin to early nineteenth-century Earth — if Earth was populated by countless species of dragons.

The series consists of:

  1. A Natural History of Dragons (2013)
  2. The Tropic of Serpents (2014)
  3. Voyage of the Basilisk (2015)
  4. In the Labyrinth of Drakes (2016)
  5. Within the Sanctuary of Wings (2017)

There was an interquel short story From the Editorial Page of the Falchester Weekly Review set between third and fourth novels so 3.5. While On the Impurity of Dragon-kind has a character go through an important life event during the fourth book.

A (so far) standalone sequel from the viewpoint of Isabella's granddaughter Audrey, Turning Darkness into Light, followed in 2019. Brennan also released a short story set after the novel.

A Memoir by Lady Trent contains examples of:

  • Accidental Proposal: Courtesy of some inconvenient travel accommodations and Isabella's complete lack of a brain-to-mouth filter, she tells Suhail she'll marry him so he can accompany her into the Labyrinth of Drakes without it being seen as improper, and then continues with the plans only realizing halfway through that she just proposed to him. He finds it hilarious and accepts.
  • Action Survivor: Isabella is far from an Action Girl, but finds herself in many dangerous situations.
  • Advanced Ancient Acropolis: Many of the Draconean ruins show signs of a civilisation rivalling anything around in the present and a great deal ahead of many. Most notably, they've had a global reach, which is something no modern nation can claim.
  • Adventurer Archaeologist: Suhail researches Draconean ruins, and his first scene has him diving off a cliff. Short time after, he reveals that he's conducting his research in ruins occupied by a quetzalcoatl.
  • Alternative Calendar: Isabella's world, though less advanced than ours, is in its sixth millennium (the calendar system being based off the Jewish calendar system). The names of the months and days of the week are also different from ours. See the wiki for a more detailed explanation.
  • Ambiguous Gender Identity: Heali'i of Voyage of the Basilisk is trans and is referred to with female pronouns. However, Isabella admits that she doesn't know enough about Keongan culture and gender norms to know if she's interpreting it properly and doesn't speak the language herself, so it's not clear if she's a trans woman or if that's just the closest approximation that could be translated into Scirling.
  • Anachronistic Clue: Zig-Zagged in Turning Darkness Into Light. The first 11 or so tablets are genuine ancient artifacts, while the last three are extremely skilled forgeries created by a scholar of the Draconean language, who even wore special gloves when making them to avoid leaving human fingerprints. Audrey, Kudshayn, and Cora only find out the last few are fake when someone tries to destroy all the tablets, revealing that the genuine artifacts had gold cores covered by clay, while the forgeries are pure clay.
  • Artistic License: Isabella repeatedly mentions how certain things that people have romanticized about her life were in fact a lot less dramatic, neat, or impressive when they happened. For one example, Isabella mentions that there are numerous paintings of the moment she took down a caeliger while riding a sea serpent, most of which depict her as standing atop the beast, wearing a dress, her hair blowing majestically in the wind. The reality was a lot less romantic: she was dressed in trousers, had short hair that was plastered all over her face, and she was hanging on for dear life off the sea serpent's nose.
  • Artistic License – Biology:
    • In a world full of dragons, a large number of mundane animals similar to those of our world seem to coexist with them. Realistically however, it would make more sense for dragons to be a Fantastic Fauna Counterpart of certain species as competition between two creatures filling the same niche is too great to allow both to survive (i.e., mammals only diversifying into many niches after the dinosaurs became extinct).
    • Some of the flying dragons are of the six-limbed variety, which would make flight difficult if not impossible due to the extra set of forelimb muscles occupying the same space, leaving no room for large flight muscles or a keel to attain powered flight.
    • Dragon wings are shown to have evolved from the middle pair of limbs that then became webbed arms and eventually wings. However, this ignores the trend of "cephalization": when limbs are modified for certain tasks, like a crab's claws, a centipede's "fangs" or a mantis' arms, the pair closest to the head are more likely to be modified rather than the ones behind it.
    • The Draconeans are upright humanoid bipeds. However, not having descended from a primate-like ancestor and having a large tail and wings, it makes the overall anatomy rather questionable to look nearly human as the build would not be feasible to support an erect spine.
    • The concept of "developmental lability" is somewhat related to epigenetics, though dragon eggs bathed in human blood producing Draconic Humanoids is far beyond any environmental changes to embryonic development.
  • Ascended Fanboy: Andrew is a great fan of his little sister's adventures, and when she arrives in Mrtyahaima, he's trying to partake in one of them. He ends up flying the caeliger that lands in the Draconean village and partaking in Isabella's schemes. Understandably, he's beyond joyous.
  • As You Know: Inverted. Isabella will occasionally acknowledge that the events in the books are already public knowledge in-universe, but it's used for foreshadowing rather than exposition as she discusses the event without elaborating on it until it happens in-story.
  • Author Appeal: The narrator and main character is a biologist, but the author is an anthropologist, and it shows in the detailed explorations of the different cultures Isabella encounters, and her relationship and collaboration with the archaeologist Suhail. The final novel culminates this in having Isabella encounter a species of intelligent humanoid dragon, and explore their culture.
  • Basilisk and Cockatrice: The only Basilisk that shows up is the ship of that name. Cockatrices are another matter being simply a medieval legend, this fact is the central conceit of the 3.5 short story.
  • "Blind Idiot" Translation: Cora's attempt at translating the invocation on the first tablet is this. To be fair, she's not a professional translator like Audrey, and several of the characters in Draconean script are easy to mix up.
    Cora's translation: Listen with your wings in the ditches and the rocks in all corners.
    Audrey's translation: Hark, spread your wings to hear, from the canyons to the heights of stone, in every corner of the world.
  • Breath Weapon: One of the defining traits used to classify an animal as a true dragon rather than simply being dragonlike is the possession of a breath weapon of some sort, referred to in-universe as "extraordinary breath". Among the species depicted in the books, Akhian desert drakes have the classic fire breath, Vystrani rock-wyrms breathe a shower of icy particles, Bayembe savannah snakes exhale a cloud of caustic droplets, and Moulish swamp-wyrms breathe out poisonous gas. These exhalations are rarely strong enough to kill a victim outright, and chiefly serve to injure or disorient prey in order to make it easier to take down.
  • Brutal Honesty: Isabella has very little in the way of a brain-to-mouth filter, which causes her trouble more than a few times.
  • Cave Behind the Falls: Isabella discovers a Draconean ruin hidden behind a waterfall in Mouleen. Its true significance isn't apparent until later.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • Calcified dragonbone Isabella and Jacob find in Vystrana grows in importance when it allows people to figure out how to preserve dragonbone.
    • Firestone is discovered to be fossilized dragon eggs, which explains why they're found at Draconean ruins.
    • The oba's leg braces, and thus his inability to hunt, means he's qualified to have dragon eggs, as Moulish society will only allow the pure (those who have not killed) to use them.
    • Dragonbone synthesis, completely unmentioned in In The Labyrinth of Drakes in favor of dragon breeding, is the reason why the House of Dragons programme is shut down — it's finally succeeded.
    • The penknife Andrew lends Isabella in the first book is used by her to save herself in the second.
    • The dragon-headed statues of Draconean gods represent Draconeans themselves.
  • Chekhov's Gunman:
    • The smugglers Isabella stumbles upon in Vystrana turn out to be behind most of her group's problems in the country.
    • Princess Miriam, whose expedition overshadows Isabella's trip around the world, turns out to be imprisoned on one of Keonga's sister islands, and becomes important to the book's finale.
  • Citizenship Marriage: Isabella is required to temporarily marry a woman in order to be accepted in Keonga. She's straight, so the marriage is never consummated, and her wife treats it as a good practice session before marrying her crush.
  • Comic-Book Fantasy Casting:
    • Isabella herself is never really given much physical description, but the one time we get a clear illustration of her at the very end of Within the Sanctuary of Wings, she looks very like Maggie Smith.
    • Similarily, Thomas Wilker is never given a detailed description, but is revealed in an illustration at the end of The Voyage of the Basilisk to look like Domhnall Gleeson.
    • And Suhail is revealed in In the Labyrinth of Drakes to resemble both the late Ricardo Montalbán and James Caan when they were young.
  • Constructed World: Lady Trent's world is filled with dragons, with somewhat different geography but very similar cultures to that of our Earth circa 19th Century.
  • Contrasting Sequel Setting: Each book is set in a different geographical location, ecosystem, and culture. The first is in Ruritanian mountains (except for the intro, which is in not-Britain), the second in tropical not-Africa, the third is a voyage around the world visiting many different cultures, including island and mainland ones, the fourth is in a desert country, and the fifth is in her world's equivalent of the Himalayas. The Spin-Offspring sequel, by contrast, is set entirely in Scirland (not-Britain).
  • Cool Airship: Caeligers are basically zeppelins with hulls made of dragonbone.
  • Cool Big Bro: Isabella's older brother Andrew is the only one she has a close relationship with, and he's always been supportive of her and her chosen profession — in fact, him stealing Natural History of Dragons for her from their father is how she got into dragon naturalism in the first place. Isabella, in turn, seems to adore him.
  • Crystal Dragon Jesus: Complete with schismatic churches. The "Magisterial" form of the religion plays the role of the Fantasy Counterpart Culture version of Protestantism while the "Temple" form stands in for Eastern Orthodoxy. However, the actual religious beliefs and practices are based upon Judaism, not Christianity; an alert reader will notice that religiously observant characters keep kosher, celebrate holidays such as Purim, and so on. The last name of the priest in Drustanev is "Goen", similar to "Kohen", the Hebrew for priest. The "Magisterial" form of the religion is based on Rabbinic Judaism (modern Judaism) and is mostly practiced in the West, while the "Temple" form is based on the now-extinct form of Jewish temple ritual.
  • Cunning Linguist: Suhail, who speaks so many languages that when asked how many, he has to stop and think about it before answering. He's also one of two people (the other being Isabella) to decipher the ancient Draconean language (Isabella isn't a linguist like him, but she lived among actual Draconeans for months, learning it as a living language. And she wouldn't have been able to do that if he hadn't already figured out the written form.).
  • A Day in the Limelight:
    • Jake has his equivalent of a bar mitzvah in the short story "On The Impurity of Dragonkind".
    • In "The Long Fall", we get to see Aaron Mornett's life in the aftermath of Turning Darkness Into Light.
  • Dead Guy Junior: Jake is named after his deceased father.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: While it's blunted somewhat by the well-traveled Isabella looking back on things in hindsight, the books are full of period-accurate Victorian beliefs regarding women, other races, other cultures, non-heteronormative genders and sexualities, and imperialism.
  • Demoted to Extra: Both Natalie and her grandfather lose prominence as the books go on.
  • Draconic Humanoid: Draconean gods, as depicted by their statues, are humanoids with dragon heads and wings. Within the Sanctuary of Wings reveals that these aren't Draconean gods; they're the Draconeans themselves.
  • Dragon Rider: Young Keongans challenge themselves to ride atop sea serpents, and experienced ones can even steer them. Isabella and Suahil attempt the same, and Isabella even uses one to take down a Yelangese caeliger.
  • Dragons Prefer Princesses: Oddly enough for an otherwise hard fantasy tale, the wolf-drake is explicitly mentioned as preferring female prey.
  • Dragon Variety Pack: Dragons are a very varied clade of animals, with multiple subdivisions and representing several takes on fictional dragons:
    • The true dragons' greatest defining features are the presence of six limbs (four legs and two wings), a crest or ruff around their heads, and "extraordinary breath", such as fire, ice or acid. Without these traits, a creature is merely dragon-like.
    • Drakes are smaller relatives of dragons with atrophied or absent wings.
    • Sea Serpents tend to live in the tropics, and young Keongan islanders challenge themselves to ride them amongst the waves and experienced ones can even steer them.
    • Sparklings and honeyseekers are Shoulder Sized Dragons and can easily be kept as pets. A preserved sparkling is what helps set into motion Isabella' dragon obsession in the first place.
    • Finally, the Draconeans turn out to be draconic people who have many dragon-like features but due to their bipedal form, cannot fly but glide instead.
  • Dying Race: The Draconeans once had a civilization spanning the world, but collapsed so long ago that everyone's forgotten that they weren't human but Draconic Humanoids. In the final book, Isabella finds a Hidden Elf Village in the highest mountains of the world but there are still no more than a few thousand left.
  • Elephant Graveyard: The Vystrani rock-wyrms zealously carry the bodies of their dead to a specific cave in the mountains, which they themselves all lair well away from and which has over time become filled with immense quantities of dragon skeletons. The fact that Khirzoff and Rossi had been systematically hunting the dragons for their bones while preventing the living ones from carrying away the bodies is the cause behind the dragons' increased aggression, as the beasts attacked the local humans in retaliation for the theft of their dead.
  • Embarrassing Damp Sheets: Isabella gets her period in Eriga at the local capital, she is confined to a Menstruation hut until it runs its course. She meets a friend and has quite a few important conversations and finds the whole experience restful, though it helps that the agban, as it's called, is just a separate wing of the palace and a perfectly nice place to spend a few days.
  • Establishing Character Moment:
    • The first time Isabella sees Suhail, he's diving off a cliff.
    • The first major thing young Isabella does in her memoirs is dissect a dead pigeon For Science!
  • Exotic Extended Marriage: As Isabella travels the world throughout the series, naturally different marriage customs appear; a couple of different places are shown to practice polygyny, while polyandry is common in Mrtyahaima and Isabella finds herself having to explain that she's only married to one of the men in her expedition.
  • Fantastic Nature Reserve: Isabella tries to conserve dragons and other rare species and protect their habitat wherever she goes. In The Tropic of Serpents, she convinces the Oba to let the indigenous Moulish people keep control of their home jungle of Mouleen, instead of damming its rivers in the name of "progress", which would eventually lead to the extinction of the unique dragon species there. In the 5th book, the Sanctuary of Wings crosses this with Hidden Elf Village as a home for the last surviving Draconeans.
  • Fantastic Racism: In Turning Darkness Into Light, fifty years of the world knowing that Draconeans exist hasn't exactly resulted in them being welcomed with open arms. The Calderite sect interprets Scripture's description of the downfall of their civilization to mean that God has turned his back on them and they have no right to live anywhere but the Sanctuary of Wings (basically a reservation so remote that nobody else lives there). The Hadamists take an even more extreme position, advocating genocide of the "demonic lizard-men". Notably, only two countries, Scirland and Yelang, classify an attack on one as equivalent to an attack on a human being.
  • Fantastic Religious Weirdness: While it's through the lens of Alternate History, "On the Impurity of Dragon-kind" is essential Jake's treatise on whether dragons should be considered kosher. The convention is that dragons are not kosher due to a beast called a khirosh being forbidden, but sea serpents are, which makes the recent discovery that sea serpents are dragons problematic and gives Jake a reason to argue that individual breeds of dragon may be impure, but others are not, and that the khirosh is likely extinct. With later reveals in the series, it's implied that the khirosh refers not to dragons, but Draconeans.
  • Fantastic Science: Dragon naturalism, or the scientific study of dragons.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: Anthiope is Europe and the Middle East as a distinct continent, with Scirland instead of Victorian England, Vystrana standing in for a generic eastern European country, Bulskevo as Russia, Nichaea as Greece, Thiessin as France, Chiavora as Italy, Akhia as Arabia and so on. Eriga is Africa, Keonga is Polynesia, and Yelang is China (with Mrtyahaima being the Himalayas). Lutjarro and Hakkoto, equivalents of Australia and Japan respectively, are mentioned but never visited. The people of Mouleen are based on pygmy tribes such as the Mbuti and the Aka. The Draconeans aren't an exact analogue for any real culture, though the artwork we see in the illustrations has a definite Egyptian bent to it. There seems to be no analogue for the Americas, except for Coyahuac, which is similar to the Yucatan. (Coyahuac is shown on the map to be a peninsula of Othole, a continent across the sea from Dajin (Asia), but no other places there are named or visited.)
  • Fictional Document:
    • Every book is presented and reads like an old-fashioned memoir penned by Lady Trent.
    • Isabella often refers to other works, pictures and photographs that exist in her world, as the in-universe readers are expected to have access to them. Edgeworth's Natural History of Dragons is the most common of those.
    • The plot of Turning Darkness Into Light centers around the translation of a series of ancient clay tablets.
  • Fiendish Fish: The swamps of Mouleen are home to a species of predatory fish that Isabella labels "fangfish", which live in large schools, go into feeding frenzies at the smell of blood and can strip a grown human to the bone in minutes. In the end, it's revealed that these fish are in fact the infant form of the local dragon species.
  • Fire-Forged Friends: Isabella and Tom go from resenting one another to best friends and business partners through their experiences in Vystrana.
  • Foreshadowing: When she mentions dissecting a dead pigeon as a child, Isabella notes that the penknife she used isn't on her shelf alongside other items from her childhood because she lost it in Mouleen. In the second book, we get to see the circumstances of this event.
  • Four Is Death: Used for a bit of Culture Clash between the Yelangese, who being based on China believe this, and the Draconeans, for whom four is a highly auspicious number. They handle it by having only the three sisters on the official mission with the brother tagging along in a second group, so for Draconeans it's four emissaries and for the Yelangese it's effectively three plus one.
  • Freudian Trio: The three sisters who rescue Isabella in the last book, with Zam being the Id, Kahhe as the Superego and Ruzt as the Ego.
  • Gaslamp Fantasy: Nestled firmly in this genre; essentially a faux-Victorian era with different geography and roughly the same cultures at that time though in Broad Strokes with modern sensibilities towards colonialism. Oh and the dragons with the specific cultural attitudes towards them mixed with the chemistry and international politics involved with these heretofore unexploited natural resource.
  • Gender Rarity Value: Eighty percent of Draconeans are born female, and the few males serve as priests and scribes, while the females occupy most of the labor, leadership, and warrior roles.
  • Giant Flyer: A lot of work is put into Justifying this trope and even then there are limits to how big a dragon can get and still fly. Nonetheless, many flying dragons are very large.
  • Green Aesop: The memoirs discuss in-universe problems posed by dragons in a world going through an industrial revolution. Most of them mirror real-life conservation issues:
    • Coexistence between rural human populations and wild dragons vs. the issues caused by predators (wolves, tigers, lions etc) on livestock-raising human communities.
    • The exploitation of dragons for their bones vs. the IRL decline of large animals such as whales, rhinos and elephants hunted for body parts.
    • The ethics of trophy hunting are discussed.
    • The threat posed by a dam construction project on the Green Hell in the second book vs. IRL infrastructure developments (dam, agriculture...) in Amazonia and their impacts on its biodiversity and indigenous populations.
  • Happily Married: Isabella and Jacob, thanks to shared love of all things draconic. Later, Isabella and Suhail.
  • Hidden Elf Village: The Broken Sea is a large scattered archipelago with so many islands it's madness to search all of them.
    • The eponymous Sanctuary of Wings of the final book is a hidden valley inhabited by Draconeans.
  • Hold Your Hippogriffs:
    • Isabella describes her childhood friend Amanda as "what young people nowadays would call wing ."
    • Isabella mentions the saying "teach a dragon to hatch eggs" and the "dragon's share" rather than "lion's share".
    • Isabella says she won't "look a gift drake in the mouth".spoiler 
    • Audrey speaks of "putting the tail ahead of the dragon".
  • Human Sacrifice: Segulist Scripture claims that the Draconeans practiced this, and it was one of the reasons God allowed their civilization to be destroyed. Blackened pillars have been found at Draconean ruins, with some speculating they were for burning people alive. In Turning Darkness Into Light, Audrey and Kudshayn translate an ancient text that seems to confirm these suspicions. It turns out the last few tablets were a forgery by Fantastic Racists to stir up anti-Draconean sentiment ahead of a vote on Draconean sovereignty.
  • Hungry Jungle: Mouleen is a cross between this and Swamps Are Evil. It's a low-lying area between two higher plateaus that three major rivers pour into, which has turned it into a vast, swampy morass filled with a trackless tangle of jungle life. The swamplands are swarming with insects and leeches, most of which carry diseases, and home to large populations of poisonous snakes, aggressive pigmy hippos, schools of flesh-eating fish, and crocodile-like dragons. Its native people love it dearly and know how to live there successfully, but to outsiders it is justifiably known as the "Green Hell".
  • In Which a Trope Is Described: Every section of each book begins with "in which (brief and non-specific summary)".
  • It Can Think: Isabella sometimes wonders how intelligent dragons are.
  • Jungle Drums: The Moulish communicate quickly across the jungle by using drums, with different rhythms carrying different messages.
  • Lady of Adventure: Isabella herself, an intrepid adventurer-scientist, specifically a natural historian which is roughly what we'd call a biologist, in a similar vein to real-life examples such as Gertrude Bell. The series covers the future Lady Trent's career traveling the world studying dragons unintentionally becoming world famous, societal expectations, Culture Clash, deadly environments, and international politics be damned.
  • La Résistance: The Khiam Siu are a rebel faction in Yelang who want to overthrow the current ruling dynasty.
  • Lineage Comes from the Father: Discussed in The Tropic of Serpents; Scirling society is patrilineal, while Erigan society is matrilineal. This poses some problems where inheritance is concerned. Also, Segulism considers children of a Segulist woman to belong to her religion (like real-world Judaism), while Amaneen considers the children of an Amaneen man to have their father's religion (like real-world Islam). This would be a problem for Isabella and Suhail, if they had any children.
  • Low Fantasy: In most regards, such as politics, culture and physics, the world of the novels is entirely like ours. The only significant differences from real life are geography and the presence of an additional animal clade.
  • Lost Language: The language of the Draconeans (by the dates given, they're more of an equivalent to Ancient Egypt or Assyria than Greece or Rome, and, as previously mentioned under Advanced Ancient Acropolis, they had a global reach, unlike any of the modern cultures) isn't successfully translated until the Sequel Series. Even the name used by the modern cultures for said civilization is explicitly noted by Lady Trent to be a placeholder.
  • Manly Tears: Suhail breaks down into tears upon finding out Isabella is alive.
  • Maternally Challenged: Although Isabella loves her son, she freely admits that parenting isn't her best skill. She more or less leaves young Jake to his nursemaid until he's old enough to carry a conversation, though in the third book she takes him on the eponymous voyage around the world to make up for it. Whenever they're together or in contact in the fourth and fifth books, they usually get on rather well. Whatever her flaws as a parent, Jake doesn't hold them against her.
  • Matriarchy: Underplayed, but the Draconean society is ruled by nine women and one man. Isabella mentions that their population does have an actual gender imbalance, but not to that extent.
  • Matron Chaperone: Downplayed. After her husband's death, Isabella has to travel everywhere with other women to deny the scandal that she would otherwise attract for traveling with men, even though she's a grown woman with a son. Isabella mentions often how ridiculous this is and the women traveling with her don't think too highly of it either.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: During A Natural History of Dragons, the first book with the final confrontation with the poachers, did the Vystrani rock-wyrm really save Isabella, or was it just a happy accident?
  • Monster Organ Trafficking: Gaetano Rossi discovers a chemical process to preserve the fast-decaying bones of dragons. Isabella and Tom realize that this would lead to dragons all over the world being hunted to extinction for their bones, which once they're preserved are extraordinarily strong and light. They try to keep it under wraps, but the research is stolen and eventually becomes an open secret. They then shift to funding research into synthesizing artificial dragonbone, to obviate the need to kill dragons.
  • Myth Arc: Although each book tells a self-contained story, dragonbone preservation and ramifications thereof form the background to all of Isabella's adventures. There's also a much subtler one building up to the reveal of the Draconeans.
  • Never Found the Body: Isabella's on the "body" end of this in the final book; after she's lost in an avalanche, she's presumed dead, and Suhail and Thu set out to find her body. Obviously, as she's the author of her memoirs, she didn't die.
  • Never Was This Universe: The series is set in a world that seems superficially similar to the real world; excepting than the numerous species of dragons, differences in geography, and a diverse pseudo-Judaism as the primary religion instead of Christianity. Still the reader can generally tell what countries are supposed to be analogues to real-world ones.
  • Non-Indicative Name: Isabella admits in the first book that there's very little that's wolf-like about wolf-drakes beyond a propensity for preying on livestock. Visually, they resemble giant crocodiles with atrophied wings more than anything else.
  • Noodle Incident:
    • Since they are written assuming that the reader already knows about Lady Trent's exploits, there are numerous references to other adventures, books or associates that are never elaborated on; some are treated as such in the earlier books, but are then described in detail in the later ones.
    • In Within the Sanctuary of Wings, Isabella mentions that the first leg of her journey into Mrtyahaima was prolonged by having to wear disguises, lie a lot and ultimately escape from bandits, and she admits freely that was this any other of her memoirs, she'd devote at least half of the book to this.
  • Not Quite Flight: Draconeans are only capable of gliding, despite having rather large wings, because their bipedal posture leaves them unable to keep proper balance in the air.
  • Not What It Looks Like: After young Isabella gets caught dissecting a dead bird For Science!!, she has to scramble to explain that she didn't kill the bird, she found it like that.
  • Old Shame: In-universe example. Isabella mentions in the first book that she wrote a travelogue about Vystrana, but that it's mostly stereotypical dreck which she only wrote because she wanted to publish something and travelogues were one of the few genres acceptable for a lady to put her name on. She advises her readers that it's not worth the time to dig up.
  • Orphaned Etymology: The expedition falls afoul of some Komodo dragons — specifically named as such in the narration — at one point during Voyage of the Basilisk, despite the series taking place in a world where the Indonesian island of Komodo does not exist.
  • Our Dragons Are Different: There are many, many species of dragon and dragon-like animals, their bones tend to decay quickly when dead although they can be preserved by sulfuric acid, a lot of work was put into making them plausible as real animals by the author, and no one knows just how smart they are. They are also classified as part of a fairly complex system, including both true dragons and lesser dragonkin.
    • True dragons are distinguished by a number of characteristics, chiefly the presence of four legs, two wings, some sort of Breath Weapon and a cranial frill that develops on maturity, alongside a tendency for their bones to decay swiftly after death.
      • Akhian desert drakes are distinguished by very large and showy frills.
      • Moulish swamp-wyrms live in the trackless swamplands of Mouleen. They strongly resemble crocodiles in both appearance and habits, and are flightless — their wings chiefly serve as fins. Late in The Tropic of Serpents, two unusual facts of their biology are revealed — all the ones seen up to the point are male, as the females are immense and only live in a single hidden lake, while the swarms of flesh-eating fish that infest the swamps are in fact their young.
      • Savannah snakes, a species native to the savannahs of Bayembe, are almost flightless but can run as swiftly as cheetahs, and exhale a fog of caustic droplets.
      • Vystrani rock-wyrms, also called balaur, very closely resemble the classic fantasy model except for breathing ice. They live in the high mountains of Vystrana, and take the great pains to recover the bodies of dead conspecifics to place in a hidden dragon graveyard.
    • Lesser dragonkin is a broad category including everything that doesn't fit the requirements of the true dragon clade but is obviously related to them in some manner, and contains several distinct subcategories within itself. In general, lesser dragonkin tend to be far smaller and less imposing than true dragons.
      • Drakes are creatures resembling true dragons but with atrophied or entirely non-existent wings, and are some of the largest members of the dragon family still in existence in the islands of Scirland.
      • Other dragonkin who belong to no clear category include sparklings, six-legged draconic creatures about the size of a songbird, and immense Sea Serpents.
  • Pair the Smart Ones: Isabella frequently mentions that her attraction to Suhail is centered on their shared passion for scholarly pursuits. Though his Shirtless Scenes also help. She also married Jacob because he was interested in science, just like her, and promised to support her in her career.
  • Pitiful Worms: One of the tablets Audrey and Kudshayn translate is called the "Worms Tablet" because it refers to humans as worms compared to the Draconeans who wrote the tablet. The Worms Tablet and two others turn out to be a forgery to stir up anti-Draconean sentiment.
  • The Place: The Tropic of Serpents, In the Labyrinth of Drakes, and Within the Sanctuary of Wings.
  • Platonic Life-Partners: After some initial friction in the first book, Isabella and Tom develop into this; he accompanies her on her expeditions in every following book and is her closest and most loyal friend and colleague.
  • Precursors: The Draconeans are an ancient civilization that managed to domesticate dragons and conquered most of the known world before vanishing mysteriously.
  • Racial Remnant: The Draconeans living in the Sanctuary of Wings are all that remains of a once-proud civilization that spanned the world.
  • Real Name as an Alias: In the short story "The Long Fall", Aaron Mornett goes by his middle name, Geoffrey, and his mother's maiden name, Foss, to try and escape his past.
  • Real Women Don't Wear Dresses: Largely averted, as propriety demands that Isabella wear dresses when among people. This being said, from the second book onwards she wears trousers while in the field.
  • Rebel Leader: Giat Jip-hau, the leader of Khiam Siu and the would-be Emperor of Yelang.
  • Revealing Cover Up: In Turning Darkness Into Light, Audrey and Kudshayn likely would have never found out the last three tablets were forgeries if Mrs. Kefford hadn't ordered Zachary Hallman to destroy them.
  • Rival Science Teams:
    • Dragon bone synthesis is a running plot though out the novels which eventually moves from a private to public endeavor. Multiple teams including those who Isabella sponsors are working on the problem. Eventually it proves for naught when the secret is leaked to everyone and every country to prevent dragons from being hunted to extinction.
    • Downplayed In the Labyrinth of Drakes given that the teams are doing the same thing in the same place at different times. But Isabella's team is able to succeed where her rival failed.
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something:
    • Princess (future Queen) Miriam's diplomatic expedition to Yelang forms the backdrop of Voyage of the Basilisk, and it eventually turns out she was actually trying to secure a Scirling foothold on the Broken Sea.
    • Giat Jip-hau, the would-be Emperor of Yelang, insists on accompanying his men into the fray — he is, after all, a Rebel Leader.
  • Running Gag: Tom's skin becomes very red whenever exposed to the sun for too long, and wherever he goes, the locals nickname him some form of "red" or "red man".
  • Sacred Scripture: Segulism's holy text is simply called "Scripture", and seems to be broadly similar to The Torah, though the characters' names are different, there are twelve commandments instead of ten, and Scripture recounts the overthrow of the Draconean civilization, which has no equivalent in the Torah.
  • "Scooby-Doo" Hoax: In the first book, the spectre Zhagrit Mat terrorizing the protagonists turns out to be some of the locals pouring acid on the ground and making spooky noises at night to try and scare them off.
  • Science Hero: Isabella, what we'd now recognize as a biologist but in faux-victorian times called a natural historian, uses dragons quite a few times to get out of scrapes. Lampshaded in a later book.
  • Science Hero's Babe Assistant: Suhail is arguably a science hero himself , depending on what you think of archeology, and becomes more active in later books but in Voyage of the Basilisk he is more of a facilitator of the plot than the driver himself. Also he's first introduced half naked after doing the extremely vigorous cliff diving event so you can imahgine the impression he made.
  • Scrapbook Story: Turning Darkness Into Light is presented as a collection of letters, diary entries, and articles, though they include far more dialogue and detail than most diaries and letters.
  • Sea Serpents: Sea serpents are dragon-like species that are common in the world's oceans. They're Isabella's primary subject of study in the third book.
  • The Shangri-La: Namedropped and applies with The Sanctuary of Wings A mythical race of dragon-human hybrids that outlasted a millenia of genocidal human campaigns, the surrounding region tells tales of Ice-demons but beyond that has no idea such a place existed. Beyond that it's just like any other society that Isabella visits.
  • Shirtless Scene: Suhail is introduced this way, and gets several more shirtless episodes in Voyage of the Basilisk.
  • Shoulder-Sized Dragon:
    • Sparklings are no bigger than a fist, and used to be considered a type of insect that only so happened to resemble true dragons.
    • Honeyseekers can easily be kept as pets.
    • Mews in faux-Tibet also fall into this category, but unless you're a Draconean they're just pests to be trapped and killed.
  • Shout-Out: A rather unexpected one, unrelated to the subject of the books: Isabella mentions having grown up near the River Tam as a girl.
  • Sibling Team: Although the Freudian Trio of Ruzt, Kahhe and Zam are the most prominent, three sisters living and working together as a close-knit team, this is widespread among Draconean culture; the sister-group is considered the basic household unit rather than parent-child groups. (Brothers, in contrast, tend to head off on their own to live in bachelor groups.)
  • Snobs Versus Slobs: Isabella's and Tom's rivalry in the first book has undercurrents of this, as he's worried that her higher social status will interfere with his attempts to make a name for himself and she subconsciously puts him down because he's a commoner.
  • Someone to Remember Him By: After Jacob dies, Isabella discovers she's pregnant. The child is named for his father.
  • Slut-Shaming: One of Isabella's recurring problems is that due to her culture's strict and misogynistic ideals, unmarried women have to be chaperoned everywhere by either other women or their own relatives to keep them from doing anything improper. And even though she complies, often making the trip much more inconvenient, she's still hounded by rumors that she's sleeping with Tom, Suhail, or both.
  • Speculative Biology: The dragons and dragon-like creatures, though the author's background is in anthropology.
  • Speculative Fiction LGBT: On Keonga, trans people are considered "dragon-spirited" and have attending spiritual duties and taboos related to dragons. Isabella herself is considered a man and temporarily marries a woman to reconcile both her crossdressing and her closeness to dragons.
  • Summon Bigger Fish: Several times, Isabella deals with enemies by deliberately luring them into the path of an angry dragon. She has serious concerns about the ethics of this.
  • Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: Isabella and Mr. Wilker. They get better, though slowly.
  • Turned Against Their Masters: In the world's backstory, ancient Draconeans perished when their servants turned against them and poisoned their eggs.
  • Underwater Ruins: Searching for these is what brought Suhail to the Broken Sea.
  • Unresolved Sexual Tension: Between Isabella and Suhail in the third and fourth book. They marry by the end of the latter.
  • Urban Fantasy: Magic is completely absent, unless we're talking about the physics defying dragons. The modern sensibility comes from the modern view of the Victorian era Colonialism. Thanks to Isabella being grit in the gears of her own empire they're forced to take a more diplomatic stance then straight conquest. The foreign cultures she visits are respected as people who have their own motivations outside of just being set pieces for Isabella's story.
  • Vehicle Title: Voyage of the Basilisk.
  • Wandering Culture: The Ghalb have a culture distinct from other Akhian tribes, largely based on the Bedouin. They have no territory of their own, but practice a nomadic lifestyle, paying a fee for safe passage through other tribes' lands. They are forbidden from owning horses, and most don't even own camels, only sheep and donkeys. Because they don't wage war with other tribes and travel all across Akhia, they are sometimes employed as guides by other tribes. Despite this, other Akhians look down on them as "carrion-eaters" because they do not slaughter their meat according to Segulist or Amaneen law.
  • Wham Episode: Without going into too many spoilery details, Within the Sanctuary of Wings upends almost everything both the characters and the audience think they know about the world's history.
  • Wham Line: At the end of Chapter Eight of Within the Sanctuary of Wings, as Isabella and her companions have just finished excavating the frozen dragon carcass they came looking for:
    We had seen that image a thousand times, in statues, carved into walls.
    It was a Draconean god.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The Afterword to Within the Sanctuary of Wings has Isabella recount briefly what has happened in the life of her and other people involved in her story, as well as some general information about the differences between the world from her memories and the world as it is now.
  • White Man's Burden: Thoroughly and scathingly defied by Lady Trent, who has been painted as such by popular Scirling culture after her adventure in Mouleen. She finds it insulting to herself and the Moulish as she simply wanted to do her research with minimal fuss and for the most part cooperated with them only for that (and looking back on it is even embarrassed by her selfishness and apathy to their problems), while the Moulish were completely responsible for negotiating the preservation of their culture and sovereignty with Isabella only acting as a messenger, but of course Scirling culture won't have that and frames her as a heroic champion single-handedly saving the oppressed Moulish.
  • Wholesome Crossdresser: Isabella's habit of wearing trousers while on expeditions paints her as this in the pseudo-victorian Scirling society. She meets a few others who do something similar though more culturally appropriate for their societies.
    • She deliberately does in her home country the above 4.5 short story to disprove an amateur naturalist exhibiting a mythical beast that she proves can't possibly exist. And turns out to be a taxidermy fake.
  • Worldbuilding: This world has its own history, religions, and mythology — and quite a bit of it.