A Magnificent Mystery

Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent Memoirs

Starting with A Natural History of Dragons and ending with the recently published Within the Sanctuary of Wings, Marie Brennan’s five-book series, the imagined memoirs of a woman naturalist in an imagined alternate world, offers a lot to the reader.

1) For one thing, from their stunning covers to their lovely interior drawings, they are physically beautiful books. See for yourself.








2) For another, they’re fun.

Lots of this comes from Lady Trent’s starchy voice as she retells the major events of her long life in which she doesn’t behave properly.

More fun comes from figuring out what the places and peoples of our world are equivalent to in hers. For instance, she comes from Scirland that much resembles our own Scotland. I’ll let you have the fun of figuring out what other place names in her books parallel those in ours.

Though she comes from a society that severely limits the lives of its women, she goes on lots of adventures.

3) The science is sound and interesting. Though the series is classified as fantasy, because of the dragons, I suppose, in several ways the books are more like science fiction. For instance, the dragons are real biological creatures. And over their evolution, they’ve adapted, like mammals, to many of the ecological niches of their world including the air, the seas, jungles, deserts, and mountains.

4) Throughout the five books, Lady Trent plants clues that lead to solving the great mystery of her world.

But you’ll get no spoilers from me.

Juliet’s Favorite Reads for 2013

Becoming a publisher in addition to being a writer has cut into my reading time quite a bit this year, so instead of my usual rate of four books a month, I read fewer than three a month in 2013. But the five I’ve chosen would stand out in any year. (Please note that not all were first published in 2013 because sometimes it takes me a while to discover the book everyone else read the year or so before.)

# 5 – Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent (2013)

When I spotted this novel on the new and current shelf at my local library, its intriguing title and cover drew me to it. I picked it up, scanned the cover with the picture of a dragon shown partly in anatomical detail, and read the back cover. I put it back since mostly I read mysteries. But the clever concept of a fictional memoir of a lady scientist writing about her lifelong study of dragons drew me back. I checked it out and read it with great pleasure. This story of a bookish young girl drawn to dragons from an early age and determined to find out more about them in a somewhat Victorian setting did not disappoint. The Tropic of Serpents, the second in the series, comes out in March 2014 and I’ll buy it in hardcover, along with the trade paperback of the first.

# 4 – Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette (2012)

When I found out how this book was written, it intrigued me for a rather specialized reason. It’s a fictionalized compilation of emails, articles from scholarly magazines, school documents, letters, etc. As such it goes back to two early traditions in English literature: the epistolary novel, that is, written in the form of letters, like Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, and fiction written in diary form, like Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. (I have a vested interest in the latter style since I wrote my dissertation about thirty-plus pieces of fiction written entirely or partly in the form of journals. And actually, A Natural History of Dragons fits into the third tradition for the novel in English: the fictional memoir like Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe.) But no matter why I picked Semple’s novel up, I read it because it’s a touching story of a loving daughter trying to find where her eccentric mom has gone.

#3 – Colin Cotterill’s Killed at the Whim of the Hat (2011)

I’d been a fan of the Dr. Siri Paiboun mysteries for their humor and exotic setting in Communist Laos for some time before I discovered Cotterill’s new series with Jimm Juree, a young woman journalist who lives with her eccentric family in a southern Thailand resort town. Just thinking about the title and other quotations from George W. Bush that start the chapters makes me laugh out loud. This is a very enjoyable, lively read.

#2 – Charlie Lovett’s The Bookman’s Tale: A Novel of Obsession (2013)

I’m putting this first novel near the top of the list not because one of my former students wrote it or even because it’s beautifully constructed of three different plot lines skillfully interwoven, but because at its heart it contains a touching and timeless story of a young man who finds the love of his life through books, loses her, and finds her again, also through books. It is not my top pick only because of my pick is

#1 – Louise Penny’s How the Light Gets In (2013)

When my friend Sally Ooms gave me this book for my birthday this year, I hugged it to my heart and beamed. (You can see my joy in my picture on my Facebook profile page.) The ninth in Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series demonstrates this masterful writer at the top of her game. The bad news for those of you who haven’t read these books is I can’t recommend this book to you. The good news is you get to read Still Life, the first in the series, and the other seven wonderful books that precede How the Light Gets In.