A Feminist Field Biologist in a World with Dragons

Voyage of the Basilisk: A Memoir by Lady Trent, by Marie Brennan, (Tor Books, Macmillan), 352 pages, release date 31 March, 2015

If it weren’t for the fact that Voyage of the Basilisk is the third volume in the Lady Trent series, I’d have to say there’s nothing else out there like it. Instead, I suppose I’ll say there are only two books out there like Voyage of the Basilisk, and both of them are, not coincidentally, also by Marie Brennan.

Lady Trent is a remarkable woman. Living in an alternate universe at a time that seems analogous to the Victorian era, she travels her world as a field biologist, observing the rarest, most imposing creatures: dragons and their relatives in many forms. Some of them are land dwelling, others aquatic—there’s even an ocean-going giant fire turtle. While she has some of the sensibilities of her time, she never allows these to get in the way of her scientific pursuits. She dons trousers on expeditions, takes to the sea for years with her young son in tow, and even—gasp!—goes on expedition with groups of male scientists.

Lady Trent is a woman ahead of her time, whatever that time actually is. To give readers a taste of the sort of woman she is, here’s her depiction of the plight of governesses in her era:

I imagine many of my readers are aware of the awkward position in which governesses often find themselves—or rather, the awkward position into which their male employers often put them, for it does no one any service to pretend this happens by some natural and inexorable process, devoid of connection with anyone’s behavior.

Lady Trent approaches science with the same precision she uses in her observations of the mores of her time. She takes field notes, studies carcases, translates ancient glyphs, untangles evolutionary trees. She talks (or writes) of ovipositors, vestigal limbs, artificial synthesis of dragon bones.

If you know a young woman who’s dreaming of a career in the sciences and who enjoys books where women do more (much, much more!) than primp, pout, and stand about waiting to be rescued by men, she needs to meet Lady Trent. The balance of the rational and the fantastic in her travels is positively addictive.