In the Labyrinth of Drakes: A Memoir by Lady Trent
Book 4 of “A Natural History of Dragons” series
Marie Brennan
Tor Books
Release Date:  April 5, 2016
ISBN 978-0-7653-7763-0

Oh, I adore Lady Trent!  She’s exactly what I want to be when I grow up.  (Never mind that I have two grown children and am not too far away from paying off a 30 year mortgage.)

In this latest take on the Regency-esque adventures of Isabella Camherst (coming into the title of “Lady Trent” at the end of this volume), we are not trekking through swampy jungles of Eriga, scaling the bitter mountains of Vystrana, nor sailing around the world in search of dragons.  Instead, we find Isabella and her fellow researcher Thomas Wilker as they endure the burning heat and the unforgiving sun of the deserts of Akhia.  But this time, there’s a twist (which should come as no surprise to the readers of this series):  rather than working despite interference from the Scirling (re:  British) Royal Army and its agents abroad, she and Tom are actually part of a government initiative to assist in the war effort: determining how to breed dragons in captivity in order to unlock the secrets of dragonbone synthesis.

Since Scirland itself has no dragons suitable for such an effort, and Akhia’s desert drakes would be ideally suited to the purpose, the scientific endeavor has been established at Qurrat, where the government has already established diplomatic ties with a dominant tribe.  But Akhia is an unrelenting and harsh land, full of environmental hazards and shifting political loyalties; it doesn’t take long for Isabella and Tom to find themselves in dangers far beyond their reckoning.  Still, the most acute peril for Isabella may not be the desert, the tribal conflicts, or even the dragons themselves – it may be her heart, for Akhia holds not only dragons but also someone from her past; an ally who may become her undoing.

Yet despite all this, even though working in harsh conditions, surrounded by strict rules of personal conduct, waylaid by political subterfuge, at a task overwhelming in its scope and unrelenting in its urgency, all while holding her heart in abeyance, Isabella comes across one of the greatest discoveries in the history of the study of dragons – if only she and her team can survive to share it.

While the action and scope of In the Labyrinth of Dragons is more focused and less raucous than in previous books in the series, it is a perfect “next chapter” in Isabella’s development.  After the madcap adventure of Voyage of the Basilisk, the series needed to re-anchor itself in scientific research and study, for that is the core of and catalyst for Isabella, all other perils aside, and this book accomplishes that goal brilliantly.

Oh, there is plenty of action, and danger, and plenty of that wonderful inner monologue of Isabella’s as she balances propriety with practicality, and blasts in private what she must endure in public.  But gone are the extended treks across hostile lands (the unrelenting severity of the desert does not allow for extended forays), and the distractions of offspring (son Jake remains in Scriland during his school term) or other extemporary (if entertaining!) companions.  The distractions that do exist are an intrinsic part of the story, not an adjunct to it.  Only once is there a bit of a skip when the narrative veers towards a political thriller element, but it quickly rights itself.  The science, the study – the dragons – are what is truly at the crux of this narrative, even to the ending climax, and that is glorious.

As always, paired with Todd Lockwood’s beautiful illustrations and evoking a venerable feel through antiqued endpapers, cream colored pages and sepia lettering, the voice of the dowager Lady Trent – feisty as ever – looking back at the adventures of her youth is in equal parts refreshing and entertaining, as it has been throughout the entire series.  I marvel at how consistent yet evolving Isabella has been during this journey of hers; how well written and how real she feels at any given point within any and all of the four volumes, almost tangibly so.  It makes me wonder – almost as soon as I finish one book – where she will be traipsing off to in the next one.

Read this one volume, or better yet the entire series – no matter how you come to Lady Trent’s tales while researching the natural history of dragons, author Marie Brennan will not disappoint.

~ Sharon Browning

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