LitStack Review: Within the Sanctuary of Wings by Marie Brennan

by Sharon Browning

Within the Sanctuary of Wings
A Memoir by Lady Trent
Marie Brennan
Tor Books
Release Date:  April 25, 2017
ISBN 978-0-7653-7765-4

What a lovely way to end a wonderful fantasy series!

Since 2013, with the publication of Lady Trent’s first installment of her memoirs in A Natural History of Dragons, author Marie Brennan has given readers a delightful blend of Victoriana, fantasy and archaic science. Throughout the five volume series, we have seen Isabella – Lady Trent – evolve from an inquisitive young lady, driven by her love of scientific discovery yet concerned about the gossip regarding her “unlady-like” pursuits, to a dowager force to be reckoned with, still aware of propriety yet masterful in being able to play within its constraints.

And in her sprawling yet straightforward and honest memoir (no grist for scandal here!) we’ve been allowed to follow Isabella through every step of each of her amazing journeys – or, rather, every step that she’s deigned to share with her adorning public.

Within the Sanctuary of Wings follows the same general path as Ms. Brennan’s previous books in this series:  Isabella is piqued into an expedition on the strength of a rumored discovery – in this case, evidence of a new breed of dragons, high up in the frigid Mrtyahaima Mountains on the Dajin continent. Then, the diplomatic complication: the Mrtyahaima Mountain range stretches along the borders of enemy territory, and both the hostile Yelang (who Isabella had already confronted in The Voyage of the Basilisk) and Isabella’s native Scirland are searching for a pass through the mountains that will give their military forces a huge tactical advantage in the conflict.

Of course, Isabella has no intention of letting anything stop her from verifying this new information, whether the obstacle be diplomatic, logistical or physical. Yet more than any other book in the series, we find her tested in ways that she could not have foreseen or prepared for. While we are aware that Isabella will survive – she’s writing her memoirs in retrospect, after all – the question is, at what cost? In Within the Sanctuary of Wings, Isabella realizes for perhaps the first time that she is in a no-win situation, and she has no choice but to pay that overwhelming cost of what may be her greatest, but most devastating, discovery.

With every book in the Natural History of Dragons series, Marie Brennan has given Isabella greater confidence and a stronger voice. Her heroine has grown, and matured, and gotten stronger herself, no longer questioning her abilities or her place in the male-dominated professional societies that lay claim in determining the veracity of scientific knowledge. She has learned how to circumvent dissent by solid fieldwork, immaculate documentation, and a quick wit along with the ability to liaise between disparate factions, becoming a woman of many acknowledged skills, as well as a world traveler who associates with generals and kings, and a published authority in the field of dragon study. Perhaps this is why Isabella’s struggle in Within the Sanctuary of Wings is so gripping; despite her strength, despite all of her accomplishments, she continues to be tested, and she still struggles with vulnerability when her loves and her humanity are on the line. It’s wonderful, wonderful stuff.

I also must mention Todd Lockwood’s  illustrations which have graced the five the covers in the series, and have appeared throughout each of the books. They are simple yet powerful, marrying a scientist’s exacting eye with an artist’s creative sensibility. These illustrations, plus other, smaller touches such as synopsive labeling at the start of each chapter, deckled edges on the pages themselves, and an antiqued color palette throughout, give us wonderful visual purchase into the alternate history that Ms. Brennan has created.

In fact, while Isabella is indeed a compelling, entertaining heroine and each book in the Natural History of Dragons series is, in turn, fun and gripping in the individual stories they tell, it is the complete world that Marie Brennan has created that truly allows this series to shine. In these five books, she has built a layered yet cohesive world which is familiar enough to be given instant credence, but unique enough to keep us from getting complacent. Place a spark like Lady Trent at the heart of it, and manifest the fantastic through the reality of dragons, and there is no doubt that reading any or all of these books will be an absolute pleasure.

And they are, with Within the Sanctuary of Wings as the capstone of the entire series, as it should be. It is a lovely way for Lady Trent to bid us adieu, and for us to give thanks that, in her recounting of all those adventures, she took us along for the ride.

Look for Within the Sanctuary of Wings on bookstore shelves staring April 25.

~ Sharon Browning

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