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The Voyage of the Basilisk by Marie Brennan

The Voyage of the Basilisk by Marie Brennan
Book Name: The Voyage of the Basilisk
Author: Marie Brennan
Publisher(s): Tor Books
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Fantasy / Alternate History
Release Date: March 31, 2015

When writing memoirs, or indeed anything, it seems essential to cluster events thematically, throwing away all the boring bits in the process (such as laundry and visits to the bathroom) to tighten the story into something resembling a plot.

The first two volumes of Isabella Lady Trent’s fictional life story, A Natural History of Dragons and The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan, succeed in creating an exciting piece of fiction that is equally believable as an interesting memoir for anyone open to the idea of a 19th century Earth inhabited by dragons.

Brennan’s challenge for part three, following these excellent accounts of Isabella’s early life, was always going to be keeping up the momentum of the character’s extraordinary deeds while still structuring the stories as successful episodic arcs within the overall series in a way that doesn’t destroy her chosen narrative device of the memoir.

For the most part, Voyage of the Basilisk does rise to this challenge. The writing is as crisp and wry as ever, reminding the reader why Isabella is such good fun to be around in both her younger self and the older narrator she turns into. However, there are some notable differences from the previous instalments that makes it feel somewhat lacking within the series as a whole.

As a quick reminder, the first book introduces Isabella as a precocious teen interested in the natural history of winged creatures and follows her growth, marriage and first trip to study dragons in the wild. Book two takes this further, with a larger expedition where an older but not much wiser Isabella struggles with her identity as a woman and mother in the wider world of men.

Voyage of the Basilisk begins a few years after Isabella’s decision to take a trip around the world. With the preparations in place she sets off with her usual companion Tom Wilker and her now nine-year-old son, Jake and his governess.

The party’s ocean journey aboard the aptly-named Basilisk is an epic adventure from the get go. The group experiences various dangers, diseases and dragons before the inevitable sea storm that dictates the rest of the story half a world away from their home in an alternate Europe.

While none of the books in this series have lacked action, it’s striking how quickly this instalment dives into deep sea dragon fights and other lively adventures that have until now lacked such intensity until nearer the climax. This is not necessarily a bad thing but it does make the story feel rushed in comparison to its predecessors. Its relevance to the plot can’t be disputed but it’s also a shame to lose the measured rhythm associated with the academic nature of Isabella’s quests.

Also lost is some of the connection with other characters, either because they don’t feature in this journey, or because there just isn’t the time between the pages to develop them further at this stage.

Tom Wilker is the main example of this. Isabella’s research companion since her first adventure to the northern chill of Vystrana in A Natural History of Dragons, Tom has turned from vexatious nuisance to trusted advisor integral for keeping Isabella’s reckless nature in check. In this book he isn’t around a great deal, and his own life and its accompanying problems aren’t much of a consideration for the protagonist.

There are, however, some additions to the cast, including an authoritative ship captain, a cross-dressing spirit guide and a brave and knowledgeable new friend and companion that reminds Isabella of the comforts of marriage that she is missing.

Most importantly, Isabella’s son Jake, whose existence caused much of her internal conflict in the second book, has also grown to develop something of a personality. Her son’s childlike identity being far more relatable to the biologist than the infant he had been, this conflict has either been erased or left behind. The most noticeable thing about Jake’s presence is how it affects the risks Isabella takes with her life and the lives of those around her in order to achieve her goal of studying dragons. Which is not a lot.

Older and more secure in her widowhood, Isabella actually seems more inclined to throw herself off things and put herself in harm’s way in the pursuit of knowledge. The pleasure in this is that it is both admirable and confusing. Her judgements are still often as skewed as they ever have been but that’s what makes her so much fun, and great tension and conflict emerge from her mistakes and spontaneity.

In a trip that spans half the world, Brennan’s approach to language is wise. Isabella admits that she has no gift for foreign tongues but ensures she relays her conversations in terms of their meaning rather than what was actually said. This approach means no tedious accented writing to struggle with and demonstrates the characters’ integration with various societies as their exchanges become more complex.

Thematically, Voyage of the Basilisk has a lot less about it than the first two books, particularly The Tropic of Serpents, which offers mounds of detail ripe for interpretation. It often feels like a race to the next big event and the glimpses we get of various types of dragon are less detailed than they could have been, with Isabella referring us to her other works for more information – which is not very useful for the real-world reader. However it seems likely that the reasons behind these “lacking” elements can be explained by structure.

In this volume the overall arc of the series has started to appear, which creates even more story to be squeezed into a relatively small book. With so much needing to be included in one volume – because the contents of each volume are dictated by the voyage the characters undertake – it is inevitable that something else has to be thrown overboard to avoid the whole thing sinking in a mess of words.


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