In the Labyrinth of Drakes by Marie Brennan
The fourth book of an ongoing series is a troublesome prospect. Stagnation and repetition are potential pitfalls, and there is no doubt that Marie Brennan totters on a precarious ledge at times during In the Labyrinth of Drakes. Isabella, not-quite-yet Lady Trent, certainly has to deal with many of the recurring themes from the first three books. From her ongoing battle to establish her reputation as the premier authority on dragons amidst a male-dominated scientific community who continually deride her achievements (which the throwaway short From the Editorial Page of the Falchester Weekly Review also covers in epistolary form) to fending off continuing slurs on her private life and romantic entanglements, it is familiar ground.
“You and I are not held to the same standards, Andrew. People will forgive a slip, a weakness, a minor personal folly – when it comes from a man. They may click their tongues at you, even gossip about your behaviour . . . but at worst, it will only reflect on you. If I misstep, it goes far beyond me. Errors on my part are proof that women are unsuited to professional work; they are evidence that the Crown should never have assigned a woman to this post.”
Of course, it would not be believable for attitudes to have changed so quickly in the three years that have passed since Voyage of the Basilisk. Gender-related issues remain crucial to the story and characters and Brennan pirouettes around this minefield with her usual aplomb, preventing it from becoming tired. This is largely because Isabella is such a strong character that it is impossible not to cheer her on as she fights for her rights and sometimes subtly, sometimes scathingly puts down the nearest backwards-thinking Neanderthal male who has denigrated her either professionally or personally. This is not to say that she wins every argument, but sometimes her setbacks are equally as important as her triumphs. Additionally, the story elaborates and expands on plotlines from the previous books and then develops them in intriguing ways.
Fresh from the race to uncover the secret method of preserving dragon bones, which would simply crumble beforehand, Isabella and her partner in science, Thomas Wilker, are thrown into the middle of what is, effectively, an arms race. The Yelangese, long-time enemies of Scirland, are using the incredibly strong, light and flexible dragon bone to build a fleet of airships. The powers-that-be in Scirland predictably want a force of their own and so Tom is asked to journey to Akhia, where the military is engaged in an attempt to breed desert drakes in order to harvest their bones. Understandably, Isabella makes sure she is aboard for the trip, too.
They are in many respects the quintessential dragons, the sort that come to mind the instant one hears the word. Scales as gold as the sun, giving rise to legends that dragons hoard gold and sleep atop mountainous piles of it, until their hides are plated with the precious metal; fiery breath that sears like the desert summer itself.
The dragons, as with the series as a whole, are never less than fascinating and, much like the shark in Jaws, the rarity of their appearances makes those moments all the more thrilling and frightening. Brennan’s taxonomy sees many different breeds, in all shapes and sizes, and the matter-of-fact way in which their presence is acknowledged is wonderfully refreshing. These are not mythical creatures but animals which live in the world in the same way as any other. David Attenborough would approve.
The breeding programme is something that Isabella feels she can support. If it were not done this way she can foresee dragons in the wild being slaughtered wholesale in order to get their precious bones, a prospect she cannot contemplate. She therefore throws herself wholeheartedly into the endeavour, even knowing the problems which may lay ahead, not least of which is fathoming the mating rituals of desert drakes and the exact condition under which their eggs can be successfully brought to term.
Throw into this mix the politics of the region, Yelangese plots, kidnappings, assassinations, and characters returning from Isabella’s past, and it makes for a pacey page-turner which neither wastes time nor overstays its welcome. Isabella is, as always, an engaging narrator and it is to Brennan’s credit that some of the most thrilling sequences come not from the action but from the moments of scientific revelation and archaeological discovery. And, needless to say, her personal life photobombs her progress at the most inconvenient moments . . .
I sometimes imagine there is a clerk behind a desk situated between the brain and the mouth. It is his job to examine utterances on their way out, and stamp them with approval or send them back for reconsideration. If such a clerk exists, mine must be very harried and overworked; and on occasion he puts his head down on the desk in despair, letting things pass without so much as a second glance.
Problems with the book amount to little more than nit-picking. For a narrative style that so successfully and entertainingly evokes the literary form of Victorian England in so many ways, there are occasions where Brennan lets the odd ‘Americanism’ slip through (Isabella has occasionally ‘gotten’ back from somewhere, or may be ‘obligated’ to do something instead of being ‘obliged’) which tended to throw me out of the experience very briefly. Seeing as this is a secondary world, however, I can deal with it. There are a couple of instances where Isabella escapes a little too easily from a potentially deadly situation and, more importantly, the conclusion feels somewhat rushed.
These niggles aside, In the Labyrinth of Drakes is an involving, exciting entry in a series which sets itself apart by giving us a different and refreshing take on dragons. If you haven’t tried it yet then what are you waiting for?
“Come. Let me show you wonders.”