WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS
Don’t read this if you haven’t finished The Memoirs of Lady Trent series
When I was a little girl I was obsessed with dinosaurs. I watched Land Before Time so many times it’s a wonder my mum doesn’t have a nervous twitch if I happen to mention the name, and Jurassic Park is still one of my favourite films.
I borrowed books about dinosaurs from the library constantly and one of my heroes was Mary Anning. So when I discovered a series about a dragon naturalist who essentially reads like a fantasy version of Mary Anning, I knew I had to check it out.
I first tried to read the first book in the series, A Natural History of Dragons, back in 2014 when I found a copy in the library. I managed to get over halfway through the book before I DNF’d it – it just wasn’t working for me, and I was so sad this book that should have ticked all of my boxes wasn’t doing any ticking at all.
Then, in 2018, I decided to give the audiobook a try and fell in love with Kate Reading’s narration. I ended up reading all but one of the books in the series via audiobook – the final book I had to read on my kindle, because for some reason the audiobook was only available as an expensive audio CD – and I had the best time. If you’re interested in this series I can’t recommend the audiobooks enough; Kate Reading is marvellous.
Now, if you were to ask me, I’d happily say that Isabella is one of my favourite fantasy heroines. We follow her through several years of her life and her various adventures and scientific discoveries, so you can’t help but love her by the time her story draws to a close at the end of Within the Sanctuary of Wings.
And yet, if I’m being completely honest with myself, even when I listened to the audiobook I found Isabella quite irritating for most of the first book. I threw my hands up at various decisions she made and sighed and wondered why she couldn’t get it right.
But why did I expect that of her? If I remember correctly, Isabella is around 18-years-old when she gets married, and she’s still in her late teens/early 20s when she’s able to convince her husband to let her accompany him on what would become her first expedition to pursue her passion for dragonology. Why, at 18-years-old and having barely experienced anything of her world because she’s a woman and therefore not permitted to have such experiences, did I expect her to get everything right first time?
The answer, my friends, is our old acquaintance: the patriarchy.
So many of us have been conditioned to expect perfection from women, perhaps even more so from our fictional women because they can be written perfect if the author so chooses, that we don’t expect from men because ‘boys will be boys’. It makes me so sad to think that, if A Natural History of Dragons had simply been a standalone, I would have remembered Isabella as a slightly irritating heroine who kept making mistakes. Thankfully, because Brennan has written this series spanning one woman’s life (and, importantly, her career), we’re able to see Isabella grow and learn from those mistakes which, as a human being, she’s perfectly entitled to make.
It also made me wonder how many other heroines have been dismissed as irritating or annoying – by me and by others – who deserve to be read better by all of us, because it could simply be that they’re appearing in a story at a time in their own lives when they’re still learning how to navigate their world and any mistakes they might make in it.
We know from the beginning of the story that Isabella eventually becomes Lady Trent and I, like many readers, kept a lookout for who this Lord Trent might be, only for Marie Brennan to school us once again with her feminism.
The beauty of this series is that there is no Lord Trent. Isabella is made Lady Trent in her own right for her own work – the work we literally follow her doing throughout this series – and I was so mad at myself for assuming it’d be a title she married into rather than a title she earned herself, and I love that that’s the direction Brennan decided to take the story in.
So I owe my thanks to Isabella and Marie Brennan both for helping me shake-up the way I view the women I encounter in fantasy and, perhaps more importantly, for helping me change my view of what I should expect from the women I encounter in fantasy.