Voyage of the Basilisk, by Marie Brennan

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Publication date – March 31, 2015

Summary: Devoted readers of Lady Trent’s earlier memoirs, A Natural History of Dragons and The Tropic of Serpents, may believe themselves already acquainted with the particulars of her historic voyage aboard the Royal Survey Ship Basilisk, but the true story of that illuminating, harrowing, and scandalous journey has never been revealed—until now. Six years after her perilous exploits in Eriga, Isabella embarks on her most ambitious expedition yet: a two-year trip around the world to study all manner of dragons in every place they might be found. From feathered serpents sunning themselves in the ruins of a fallen civilization to the mighty sea serpents of the tropics, these creatures are a source of both endless fascination and frequent peril. Accompanying her is not only her young son, Jake, but a chivalrous foreign archaeologist whose interests converge with Isabella’s in ways both professional and personal.

Science is, of course, the primary objective of the voyage, but Isabella’s life is rarely so simple. She must cope with storms, shipwrecks, intrigue, and warfare, even as she makes a discovery that offers a revolutionary new insight into the ancient history of dragons.

Thoughts: There’s something about this series that I don’t think will ever cease to thrill me. I suspect it comes down to the idea that a sufficiently curious child can walk out their front door, become fascinated with something in the natural world, and then go on to make great discoveries in that field. The idea that there’s still so much to learn about the world and that it can be learned with no more than a discerning eye, a mind for speculation, and the power of observation. I don’t want to imply that we’ve learned everything there is about the world we live in now; far from it. But it’s different now. Science marches ever onward, and where Isabella’s methods may involve comparing samples of scales obtained from locals, we would now put everything under a microscope and dissect it in minute detail. We’re no longer in a time where scientists can be followed like celebrities.

It makes me regret that this kind of time has passed, while simultaneously being glad that it did, because we know so much more than we did then.

And either way, this world has no dragons.

Voyage of the Basilisk takes place a number of years after The Tropic of Serpents, and details Isabella’s time aboard the ship called Basilisk, and she travels around the world in search of more information about dragons. Joining her are Tom, her son Jake, and Jake’s governess, and though you’d think it would be Tom who ends up side-by-side with Isabella in the discoveries she makes, it’s actually more often her son and a newcomer to the group, Suhail, who are with her in making the most significant discoveries. Add to it the usual political dance that accompanies any trip abroad, especially at a time where countries are very much bound by their borders and the idea of a global society has yet to take hold, and it all combines into an amazing scientific adventure.

It was interesting to see Jake take such a strong role in this book, since Isabella has, in the past, denied that she has much in the way of maternal instincts. Whether that’s true or not (it’s definitely possible to be a good parent without having the best instinct for it), Jake is finally old enough to be able to come along with her on her trips, getting to spend time with his mother at last and to go on display to readers of Isabella’s story (which, as with the other two books in the series, is written in the style of a memoir). Rather than just being a tag-along, he spurs Isabella into doing things she might not otherwise have attempted a few times, not all of which led to an advancement of the plot but at least provided inspiration later on. And, of course, at other times she was forced to curtail her activities for his sake. He was an active influence, rather than a passive one, and I’m curious to see if he shows up in any future installments of the series.

It’s a bit disappointing that the more exciting parts of the story didn’t really get going for quite a while. Most of the real interest takes place on Keonga, and the ship doesn’t even get there until the book’s about half over. The early scenes were important for setup, such as Isabella first encountering sea serpents, and her time in Va Hing, but they did leave the story feeling a bit without direction. Adrift at sea.

I do love how this Brennan uses the primary world as brilliant inspiration for Isabella’s world. Most authors do this, of course, but with Isabella’s globe-spanning explorations, you can practically superimpose a map of this world over hers and probably not be far off the mark. This is especially clear in the linguistic sense. Yelang was an analogue for China (not just some vague conglomerate of east-Asian stereotypes), and though it wasn’t expressed directly, knowing what little I do of Mandarin made it easy to figure that whenever a Yelangese term for a dragon was mentioned, leng was part of the phrase that meant, specifically, dragon. I want to say that Keonga was the analogue for Hawai’i, mostly based on the structure of names mentioned, but I’m not that familiar with Hawai’ian history and culture that I can be certain of it. Brennan works wonders with language and anthropology and biology, and it’s such a treat to read, encompassing about 90% of my own academic interests into one outstanding work of fantasy.

Voyage of the Basilisk, and the books that came before it, show themselves to be unique and intelligent novels, standing tall amid other offerings on the bookshelves. You can’t help but be filled with a sense of wonder and adventure when reading them, hearkening back to childhood memories when every new day was a discovery, and the whole world was yours to explore. Brennan captures that feeling with masterful skill, gives us a new world to dip our toes into — just watch out for sea serpents! — and leaves us with characters and stories who inspire and educate and delight, all in one. It blends historical fantasy and straight-up secondary world fantasy into one seamless whole. I enjoyed Voyage of the Basilisk as much as A Natural History of Dragons, each book as strong as the one before it, and I know this is a series that I’m going to return to more than once. Any series with reread value is a good series!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

4 comments on “Voyage of the Basilisk, by Marie Brennan

  1. This series sounds very interesting. I won and have the second book here, I need to get the first. But when the first book came out, I was afraid it wasn’t in a story fashion. I’ve learned differently since then and want to get to these.

  2. Pingback: March in Retrospect | Bibliotropic

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