It strikes me that Marie Brennan’s Memoirs of Lady Trent is doing something very similar to Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series. Both series, of course, centre on dragons; but that’s almost an incidental similarity, as the dragons in Brennan’s work function quite differently to those in Novik’s novels. What’s more important is that both Brennan and Novik are reworking pulpy narratives that generally centre on empire (the Victorian explorer’s memoir, the Napoleonic military fantasy) to include the perspectives of those who are traditionally left out of or marginalised by such narratives – the occupants of colonised countries or countries threatened by colonisation, women and gender non-conforming people, queer folk – and thereby construct a critique of empire.
Brennan’s novels are not I think as incisive on this as Novik’s: her fantasy world, unlike Novik’s, remains relatively unshaken by her protagonist’s encounters with new social paradigms, partly because Isabella Trent’s motives for getting along with the people she meets are basically self-interested: she conforms with unfamiliar customs in order to get access to dragons. She is simply more self-absorbed than Novik’s Captain Laurence, which means that the novels she appears in are less good at stepping outside the norms of empire.
Nevertheless, there is some interesting work going on in the series, and Voyage of the Basilisk is no exception. In this instalment, set like its predecessors in the alt-Victorian country of Scirling, Isabella and her young son Jacob embark on a two-year research trip aboard the titular vessel, looking as always for rare and fabled dragon species (dragons here being mundane if rather spectacular predators). Things of course do not go quite to plan, and the expedition’s members stumble into all sorts of exciting political trouble which inevitably turns out to be intimately bound up with Scirling interests in the island region they find themselves in.
Voyage of the Basilisk builds on the series’ interest in gender in particular. Scirling society is a little different to that of Victorian England, but its patriarchal norms remain the same, and Isabella is constantly butting up against the limits of what she can do and how she is perceived as a single woman attempting to make a name as a scientist. A hastily-published research paper that turns out to be based on erroneous assumptions is damaging to her reputation in a way that it wouldn’t be for a man; her close friendship with Suhail, a fellow researcher who happens to be male, is scandalous because she’s an unmarried woman. She’s constrained at every turn by the rigid gender norms her culture enforces.
This fact is thrown into sharp focus when the Basilisk runs aground on the island of Keonga. Forced to stay on the island while the ship is repaired, Isabella is directed by the islanders to a woman named Heali’i, a seeming outcast from village life who nevertheless attracts some measure of respect. It turns out that Heali’i is something close to transgender, although the Western concept doesn’t quite map: non-binary is perhaps more accurate, as she’s seen as being in-between genders, although her presentation is emphatically feminine. She is known as “dragon-spirited”, and seen as not quite human. In the Keongan worldview, Isabella, with her refusal to conform to standard gender norms, sits similarly in between the genders, and is similarly dragon-spirited; to tie her into human society, to neutralise the instability she represents, the villagers demand that she marry a Keongan woman for the duration of her time on the island. (The woman in question, Liluakame, is set to benefit from this arrangement: it’ll allow her to marry her true sweetheart, Kapo’ono, who’s off on a trading expedition, without being betrothed to someone else in the meantime.)
When Suhail asks Isabella if she herself believes that she is neither male or female, she gives quite an interesting answer:
So long as my society refuses to admit of a concept of femininity that allows for such things [i.e., a serious interest in dragons] …then one could indeed say that I stand between.
It’s interesting because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a straight cisgender protagonist of this sort of historical fantasy start to think about the restrictiveness of gender norms in this way, to view them as forces that affect everyone, cis or trans, straight or queer. It may not quite match up to Captain Laurence’s quest to overhaul England’s treatment of dragons, but I’m interested to see what Brennan does with it in future novels.