Book Review: Voyage of the Basilisk by Marie Brennan
A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Series: Book 3 of Memoir by Lady Trent
Publisher: Tor (March 31, 2015)
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
In the interest of full disclosure, I majored in Anthropology and Evolutionary Biology so these books are like super-strength catnip to me. Written in the form of a memoir by the venerable Lady Trent, these novels are adventurous tales about our protagonist when she was a younger woman, but just as importantly they also explore her lifetime of scientific study and research. As such, I find this series extremely hard to resist. Ethnographic narratives? My heart goes all a-flutter. Taxonomy and biodiversity? Help, I swoon! Throw in dragons to complete the trifecta, and stick a fork in me, I’m done.
Voyage of the Basilisk picks up a few years after the events of the last book, and once again Isabella is making preparations to leave Scirland in order to continue her scientific study of dragons. There will be several major differences about this particular expedition, however. Isabella will be leading it, for one; no longer accompanied by her old associate and benefactor Lord Hilford, the majority of all decisions will be falling on her shoulders. Isabella has also decided to bring along her son Jake, who is now old enough to travel. And finally, this upcoming expedition will be her longest and most ambitious one yet: two years aboard the Basilisk, a royal survey ship hired to sail her and her party around the world in order to study all manner of dragonkin.
Dragons are of course what Isabella desires to see the most. But as we’ve already seen in the previous two installments, everywhere Isabella travels, her adventures also put her in contact with the local population. In many cases, she ends up living with them and immersed in their culture. These books are as much about dragons as they are about the world Isabella lives in, which I find is one of the most unique aspects about this series. Unlike a lot of other books featuring dragons, the ones in here are not intrinsically magical or preternatural. They, along with the native flora, fauna, and even native peoples in their habitat are all part of the natural living system. For that reason, I’ve told people before not to read this series solely for the dragons, and instead read it for the whole package.
As much as I enjoyed this book, it was not what I’d expected at all. From the description and cover, I immediately thought “Maritime/Nautical Fantasy”. In truth, though Isabella does spend the majority of this book traveling on the high seas, the main story doesn’t really start until halfway when the Basilisk gets shipwrecked in the tropics and the characters find themselves as guests of the local islanders. In contrast, the first half is decidedly lighter on plot as Isabella flits from one place to next, searching for dragons to observe. The overall pacing follows a similar pattern of the first two books, where the beginning was mostly made up of a series of short anecdotes, with the meat of story coming much later. Fans of the previous novels therefore should find Voyage of the Basilisk familiar and to their liking.
Just as Isabella’s dragons evolve, so does her character development. As her confidence in her knowledge and skills increases, she starts taking on greater challenges. Leading the expedition is the first step. This book also sees her having the courage to formulate her own scientific hypotheses, as well as the courage to admit when they’re wrong.
For the first time in this series, Isabella’s son Jake is also a major character. Isabella knows her maternal instincts have never been strong, not something easy for her to admit. But as Jake grows, her feelings toward motherhood begin changing and she starts to see her son as a young man with his own hopes and dreams, and not just a reminder of her late husband. This side plot really touched me, recalling Isabella’s guilt over putting her research ahead of her family in previous book, and comparing that to her relationship with Jake now. I like how amidst the adventure and the science in these books, there’s always an emotional side to the story.
This novel builds significantly on the previous books. First of all, Isabella’s voyage on the Basilisk expanded the scope of the world tremendously, from the luscious jungles of Coyahuac to the volcanic islands of Keonga. We encounter many new species of dragons, including sea serpents, fire lizards, feathered drakes, and more. Aside from Jake, new characters include Aekinitos, the eccentric captain of the Basilisk, and Suhail, an archaeologist specializing in ancient draconic ruins. Isabella befriends the latter and then becomes quite taken with him, and their dynamic is so wonderful that I really hope we’ll see him again someday.
I really love this series, and my fondness only grows with every new adventure. I rarely make such a deep connection to a main character, but three books later, “Lady Trent” feels incredibly real for me. There’s so much about her past that has yet to be revealed, and I can’t wait for the next installment of this series. More expeditions, more science, and of course more dragons!