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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 then 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.

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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)

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A Memoir by Lady Trent contains examples of:

  • 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.
  • All There in the Manual: 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.
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  • 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 are also different from ours.
  • 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.
  • Asexuality: Natalie is heavily implied to be asexual, as she mentions that she doesn't desire a husband and didn't derive any pleasure from "female company". Word of God confirmed this in passing in a blog post.
  • 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.
  • 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, be it fire, ice or acid.
  • 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 favour 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 In the Sanctuary of Wings, she looks very like Maggie Smith.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Elephant Graveyard: A dragon graveyard plays an important part in the first book.
  • 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!
  • Fantastic Science: Dragon naturalism, or scientific study of dragons.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: Anthiope is Europe, with Scirland instead of Victorian England, Vystrana standing in for a generic eastern European country, Bulskevo as Russia, Nichaea as Greece, Thiessin as France and so on. Eriga is Africa, Keonga is Polynesia, Yelang is China (with Mrtyahaima being the Himalayas) and Akhia is Arabia. 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 Daijin (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 makes many references to in-world books on both her travels and dragon biology.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Happily Married: Isabella and Jacob, thanks to shared love of all things draconic. Later, Isabella and Suhail.
  • Hidden Elf Village: The eponymous Sanctuary of Wings of the final book is a hidden valley inhabited by Draconeans.
  • Hungry Jungle: Mouleen. Its native people love it dearly and know how to live there successfully, but to outsiders it is justifiably known as the "Green Hell". Just about everything is out to eat you.
  • 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 in a similar vein to real-life examples such as Gertrude Bell.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Did the dragon really save Isabella, or was it just a happy accident?
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Our Dragons Are Different: There are many, many species of dragon and dragon-like animals, their bones tend to decay quickly when dead though 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 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".
  • "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.
  • Sea Monster: 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.
  • Shirtless Scene: Suhail is introduced this way, and gets several more shirtless episodes in Voyage of the Basilisk.
  • Shoulder-Sized Dragon:
    • The sparklings are no bigger than a fist.
    • Honeyseekers can easily be kept as pets.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Transgender: Heali'i is biologically male, but Keongans consider her ke'anaka'i, or "dragon-spirited", which means she has gender identity and social function of a woman. Isabella is mistaken for a trans man in Keonga as well.
  • 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 those 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.
  • Wacky Marriage 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.
  • 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.
  • "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 memoires 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.
  • World Building: This world has its own history, religions, and mythology — and quite a bit of it.

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