Within the Sanctuary of Wings by Marie Brennan
The fifth – and final – of Lady Trent’s memoirs is a difficult beast to review without lurching firmly into spoiler territory, both for the preceding books and for the plot of this one. So, in order to set the scene for this review, the next paragraph will contain brief spoilers from the previous entry.
As Within the Sanctuary of Wings begins, Isabella is happily married and helping Suhail to prepare for a presentation he is about to give on the Draconean language, following the discoveries they made at the end of In the Labyrinth of Drakes. As you might expect, there is a lot of disagreement during his talk, but it is a particular disturbance at the back of the hall which draws Isabella’s attention. There, she finds a group of her countrymen have confronted a Yelangese man. For those not keeping up at the back, tensions between Scirland and Yelang have reached a new high as the race to build a fleet of caeligers – airships constructed using, originally, dragon bones – has now developed into the so-called aerial war, a series of skirmishesthat could escalate into all-out conflict at any moment. So the appearance of this Yelangese man at the presentation is viewed as highly suspicious, especially after his nation’s attempts to kidnap and murder Isabella in past encounters.
Naturally, Isabella’s curiosity is aroused. Why has this man, whose name she learns is Thu, put himself in such a potentially dangerous position? And the answer, of course, is destined to set her off on another adventure, one that will change her world forever. Far to the west, high in the mountain range of Mrtyahaima, Thu has found the remains of a dragon the likes of which he believes has never been seen before.
I racked my memory for what I knew of Mrtyahaiman draconic breeds. It was disappointingly little: the region was so remote, what reports we had largely came from non-scholarly sources. They described everything from small, cat-like dragons supposedly kept as pets by the peoples of the high valleys to demonic beasts composed entirely of ice.
To make things worse, they soon discover that Thu was, in fact, part of a Yelangese scouting party sent into the mountains to try and find a route into the east that could be used by the military. The Mrtyahaiman mountains are so inhospitable that large areas lay undiscovered, and it is viewed as a vital tactical location by both sides. Both Suhail and Isabella’s long-time partner-in-science Tom Wilker immediately question Thu’s motives. Why is he hanging this bait in front of her? Why would the Yelangese want to lure her there? Thu then reveals that he is Khiam Siu, a rebel movement, who are looking to form an alliance with Scirland against the current Yelangese regime.
It is here that the story quite literally takes off. Discussions, arguments and time pass as Isabella tries to find a way to get to the mountains. The Scirlish military become involved and routes are discussed. But it is from an unexpected source that the solution finally comes.
After this comparatively lengthy opening Isabella sets off to Mrtyahaima and her destiny. As you might expect, what follows answers a lot of questions and ties up a lot of threads. There is a lot of peril, a lot of soul-searching, some revelations, and a wonderful twist around halfway through which, I happily admit, I never saw coming in a million years.
. . . I would not be deterred: whatever it took, however much money I had to pour into the task and political maneuvering I had to engage in, I would come back and explore that lost world.
The cosmos has a fine sense of humour.
It’s not a novel without problems, though. In the final quarter there are a lot of conveniences ushered in to speed the plot along. These largely take the shape of characters and/or events turning up at precisely the moment that Isabella needs them. Such moments are less believable than the existence of the dragons themselves, and may induce some eye-rolling.
The result is that the final stages of the story feel a little contrived and quite rushed. The tensions between Scirland and Yelang are relegated to the background in favour of a bit of posturing from a couple of individuals, whilst a brief tour of far-flung places feels all too easy a solution, pushing suspension of disbelief to its limits and revealing a missed opportunity to add real suspense to the final stages. On a couple of occasions Isabella even remarks to the reader that she won’t bore us with the detail, but that detail would not have gone amiss, even if it had only lasted a page or two.
That Within the Sanctuary of Wings is the weakest book in the series is perhaps more down to expectation and the high standards set by the four novels which preceded it than any real deficiencies here. This is still a very enjoyable book that marks an end to a pleasingly different and refreshing entry in the genre. Its quasi-Victorian stylings have been a joy, and Brennan’s writing style a pleasure to read, full of wit and wisdom, backed up with plenty of atmosphere and action, and with much to say about the world we live in.
Can the final volume in a series ever please everyone? It’s highly unlikely – but it’s no bad thing to be left wanting more. As it stands, Within the Sanctuary of Wings hurtles to a satisfactory yet somewhat perfunctory conclusion. Closing scenes with favourite characters are sorely missed, and some events are relegated to an afterword that lacks the emotional impact it might have had should the last quarter of the novel have been fleshed out more fully. I, for one, would quite happily have stayed around for it.