Within the Sanctuary of Wings – A Fitting End

As always when I review the end of a series, the review can either go one of two ways: a detailed breakdown of how the author messed up the landing or a confirmation that the last book is still great and an overarching review of the series. I am happy to say that Within the Sanctuary of Wings, by Marie Brennen, falls into the latter category. I have touched on this series a lot here and there in past reviews and other posts, but as it winds to a close I wanted to take a moment to talk about it as a whole and to give it the credit it deserves.

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For those of you unfamiliar with the Memoirs of Lady Trent, the books follow an anthropologist’s memoirs as she tells the tale of her work with dragons as one of the first female scientists of her time. It must be said that they are beautifully illustrated. The series is five books long, each book taking place in a different setting with different research goals in mind. Each book builds upon the discoveries of the last, ending in a society changing discovery (which I of course won’t spoil). With the arrival of Within the Sanctuary of Wings, we finally get to find out what we have been building towards. My reaction to the big reveal was a good summary of my general feelings towards the series: I was genuinely surprised, intrigued by the really cool concept, but not blown away.

One of the key take aways I keep mentioning when I talk about this series is that while I really enjoy it for a number of reasons, it isn’t the most exciting of stories. I have decided that this isn’t a fair criticism of my experience with the book, because it results directly from one of the book’s biggest positives: these books feel like an actual history/science journal. These five novels are the closest I have ever felt to feeling like dragons were real and alive, and reality is not always super exciting. Science is not a field where everything is splitting the atom every month, there is tons of slow painful research leading up to that – and this series reflects that without its storytelling suffering in the name of accuracy. The series finds the perfect balance of accuracy and liberty with scientific process so that it feels correct, but not boring.

Additionally, Brennan did a fantastic job developing the world and cultures of her series. Looking back over the five books, the vast array of locations and people I explored is impressive. Her world is deeply fleshed out and feels like a real ecosystem. The character growth from both the protagonist (Lady Trent) and the support cast was very well handled and it was great to see character’s prejudices, opinions, and scientific understanding grow and evolve as the series progressed. The story takes place at a time of war, and the elevation of the conflict adds a lot to the tension and excitement of the books. Everything in this paragraph essentially sums up to the fact that The Memoirs of Lady Trent succeed not only as books, but as a collective series. The pacing and exploration of the world are masterfully handled, and the characters and story are a joy to progress with.

If I had to change anything about the series, it would likely to spend a little less time at the beginning of each book prepping for the eventual adventure. I understand the importance of setting a stage, but the first third of each book eventually boiled down to “someone shows Lady Trent something awesome, so she goes on an adventure”. However, even this couldn’t dampen my joy with this story. Ever since I was a child I have loved the idea of dragons, and I can’t say enough that this is the closest I have gotten to feeling they were alive. The Quill to Live definitely recommends The Memoirs of Lady Trent, and suggests you grab a copy of the books and learn about the natural history of dragons.

Rating:

Within the Sanctuary of Wings – 8.0/10
The Memoirs of Lady Trent – 8.5/10

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Memoirs of Lady Trent – Because Sometimes I Just Want To Read About Dragons

There are tons of elements in writing that draw me to a book; from great characters, to an exciting plot, to an incredible world, etc. The Memoirs of Lady Trent have two of my favorite ones, an interesting take on writing style and dragons. Marie Bennen has fused two of my favorite things in fantasy to create a book that is more anthropological journal than novel. At the time of writing this I have only read the first two of the books in the series of four (A Natural History of Dragons, and The Tropic of Serpents), but I already feel strongly enough to recommend the entire series and here is why:

Lets start with a discussion of the more simple of the two elements I mentioned, dragons. Dragons are the poster children of fantasy. Like many, my introduction to the fantasy genre was through The Hobbit where I fell in love with Smaug, and have adored dragons ever since. I do not think it is a requirement of a fantasy fan to like dragons, but I feel confident saying that a dislike of dragons is probably rare among fantasy readers. The Memoirs of Lady Trent are in my opinion the best tribute to dragons I have ever read. The books are quite literally about a woman who is obsessed with dragons in the way that many young girls get obsessed with ponies, and they document her life travelling the world as an adventurer and naturalist as studies them. Marie Brennen has created a living and breathing world of dragons, the most alive one I have ever read. From the different breeds, to the habitats they live in, to the cultures surrounding them, every aspect of the world is well developed and given an impressive amount of detail. It is so clear that the author and the protagonist love dragons, that I could not help but have some of my passion for the creatures stoked as well. These books made me want to go out and explore the world, while also sad that nothing as grand as dragons exist in our own.

The second major draw of this for me is a little more complicated. So a lot of my favorite books take on unique storytelling methods that make reading the book into a special kind of experience. Two examples of this are, The Black Company and Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. The Black Company is the story of a mercenary company from the historian’s perspective, and as such gives you a very limited view of events. The book is told from a first person perspective and does not show you lots of things that are happening behind the scenes. This creates an immersive experience that sucks you into the book and makes it feel like you are actually there. On the other hand, we have Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. This book is written like a historical text, complete with footnotes and references to fictional magical sources. This gives the sense that you are actually reading the history of a people, not just a novel. In a similar manner, the Memoirs of Lady Trent are styled as part field journal and part autobiography of Lady Trent. But what does that mean?

By now you have hopefully gotten slightly curious about the sketches throughout this post. These sketches litter the books and help illustrate the findings and travels of Lady Trent as she explores other lands and documents her findings. I found them to add a surprisingly large amount of story telling as almost always when Lady Trent stops to observe something significant, there is a stylized sketch to accompany it. In addition, the story is told from both the first person perspective and with side narration of important background information by Lady Trent. It gives the real sense that someone is telling you the story of her life, and that life was awesome. The narration is less smooth than other books I have read, but gives the very real feeling that these are the scientific journals and lifestory of a real person. I have yet to read fantasy books that gave me a similar experience, and it would be worth checking them out just to see if this style appeals to you.

While I think it should be obvious that I am going to recommend this book by now, there were a few things I did not love about the books. There is a heavy gender role element to the story (primarily a woman breaking the mold of what society deems proper for her) that felt a bit heavy handed to me at first. I will say that it decreases significantly as the books go on, but is always present. In addition, I am doubly thankful for the book sketches because sometimes the descriptive detail is overwhelmingly dense and can overload the mind trying to picture written scenes. However, as I continued the books I found that I grew used to these elements and took them as they came, reducing any significant impact they had on my reading enjoyment.

In sum, if you love dragons or are looking for a different kind of book, I highly recommend the Memoirs of Lady Trent. I would have picked up these books for their gorgeous cover art alone, but found their insides to be as grand as the outside.

Rating: A Natural History of Dragons – 7.0/10

Rating: The Tropic of Serpents – 8.0/10