In the Labyrinth of Drakes, by Marie Brennan

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Publication date – April 5, 2016

Summary: In the Labyrinth of Drakes: the thrilling new book in the acclaimed fantasy series from Marie Brennan, as the glamorous Lady Trent takes her adventurous explorations to the deserts of Akhia.

Even those who take no interest in the field of dragon naturalism have heard of Lady Trent’s expedition to the inhospitable deserts of Akhia. Her discoveries there are the stuff of romantic legend, catapulting her from scholarly obscurity to worldwide fame. The details of her personal life during that time are hardly less private, having provided fodder for gossips in several countries.

As is so often the case in the career of this illustrious woman, the public story is far from complete. In this, the fourth volume of her memoirs, Lady Trent relates how she acquired her position with the Royal Scirling Army; how foreign saboteurs imperiled both her work and her well-being; and how her determined pursuit of knowledge took her into the deepest reaches of the Labyrinth of Drakes, where the chance action of a dragon set the stage for her greatest achievement yet.

Review: The fourth book in the series of memoirs by the fictional Lady Trent, we are once again whisked off to a new corner of a fantasy world as she embarks upon yet another journey to deepen the scientific understanding of dragons. This time, though, there is a reason beyond mere scientific exploration that is driving her actions, or at least there is on the surface. While Isabella and Tom’s interest is primarily that of general discovery, the nation of Scirland wishes to fund their expedition to Akhia in order to uncover the secrets of dragon breeding, so that they might use dragons as tools of war.

Akhia is a place based largely upon the Middle East, and similar to the other locations in previous books, Brennan has done a pretty good job of not dipping into the well of stereotypes in order to build society. That isn’t to say that Akhia is a place where gender segregation doesn’t happens, doesn’t have nomadic desert tribes, or doesn’t have a mix of religions that correspond extremely well to Islam and Judaism. But Brennan is respectful in her treatment of culture, presenting things from the viewpoint of the outsider who isn’t there to pass judgment on culture but to study creatures native to the area. Is it wholly accurate, with the exception of names? I couldn’t say for certain. But it is respectful.

Were it just a matter of uncovering the secret to getting dragons to breed and thrive in captivity, In the Labyrinth of Drakes would be an interesting enough novel. But as in other books, things get more complicated and, of course, more political. As things tend to do when war is approaching. Isabella’s primary interest is in figuring things out, but her government, and thus Akhia due to the political arrangements made, wants her emphasis to be on breeding. And true to form for people who don’t quite understand the intricacies of scientific discovery, the people by whose graces she is even in Akhia want faster results than she can give. Someone is out to sabotage the project, by killing her and Tom if they must. The project faces difficulties, as before they arrived, someone else headed the project and the dragons were ill treated.

But the true discoveries come when Isabella gets her chance to visit the fabled Labyrinth of Drakes…

I have to admit, one of the things I love about this book is something I loved in previous books: that Isabella and Tom do not hook up. For all that it’s often said that of course a man and a woman can be friends without their relationship getting romantic or sexual, even for a time, very rarely do I see that portrayed in fiction. If a woman has a close male friend of colleague, chances are they’re going to be involved in a love triangle, or at least some unresolved sexual tension. But throughout the series, their relationship stays cordial, that of friends and colleagues and equals who are discovering the secrets of the world together, and neither of them express even a fleeting interest in each other or wonder about getting together. And while early in the series you could claim that’s due to Isabella being married or mourning the death of her husband, that argument breaks down as years go by and characters develop. And as Suhail is introduced. But I will forever love that Isabella and Tom can stay friends when in-book there’s scandal and rumour about them already, and in literary context that just so rarely happens.

And where romance is concerned, I seriously love the connection between Isabella and Suhail. I won’t go into detail here, to avoid spoilers, but suffice it to say that if you liked seeing their friendship develop in Voyage of the Basilisk, you’re going to appreciate what happens in In the Labyrinth of Drakes. It’s wonderfully done, and I’m a big fan of how it all came together for them in the end.

If there’s anything I particularly disliked about this book, though, it’s that it felt rather unfinished. It ends with them making a huge discovery in the Labyrinth of Drakes, breakthroughs about the ancient Draconean society, which is understandably great and it was glued to the book as the team made their explorations, but there were so many unanswered questions by the end. Why the breeding project was ultimately cancelled. Whether war is actually upon them? So much of the book was about the breeding project, regardless of its ultimate purpose, so to have it end at the discovery in the Labyrinth of Drakes felt like part of the story went unwritten, and it was a bit of a let-down.

Not an inappropriate one, contextually, since the books are written with the assumption that you want to know more about Lady Trent’s discoveries and contributions to science, and the main discovery of that time was in regard to Draconean society. So I understand that was an appropriate place to leave off the story, all things considered. But it still wasn’t really satisfying, and was possibly the least satisfying ending of the series thus far.

But all things considered, even if I wasn’t overly fond of how it ended, I still loved the book, in the same way that I loved the rest of the series. Something I heard a long time ago stuck with me, in that an old friend declared they didn’t like fantasy because fantasy “had no rules.” Dragons couldn’t really exist and fly and breathe fire the way they do in stories, magic is done arbitrarily and has no guidelines, etc. To which I always said that person couldn’t have read much fantasy, since even at the time I’d read plenty of books that set down rules for magic and attempted to explain various fantastical creatures. But never before this series had I seen one attempt to do so with such appeal to science, the tedium of watching and making notes and doing small experiments and making more notes, and actually attempting to bring what we see today as good hard science to a fantasy world. It’s an uncommon series, one that stands out because of its natural science approach, and one that takes readers on great journeys to far-flung fictional countries that so resemble pieces of our own world’s history and cultures and does it all in a way that can’t really be argued with. It’s all observation, all the tedium of watching and making notes, but exciting and thrilling, with all the associated joy of making a breakthrough and shifting how you understand the world around you. It’s just so incredibly well done.

Long story short, if you enjoyed the previous books in the series, you’re going to enjoy In the Labyrinth of Drakes just as much. It has everything I’ve come to expect from the series, Isabella’s wonderful wit and commentary, the thrill of discovery, and all set in a world that’s familiar and new at the same time. It’s a series that I don’t want to see end, because I always get the feeling that new discoveries are just around the corner, and I want to be right by Isabella’s side as she changes the world.

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