What makes a great summer read? I know the answer’s vastly different for every passionate reader. For me, the book has to be engrossing but entertaining. It has to take me out of the familiar and into another world. It needs to demand something of me, but not in an academic, autocratic kind of way.
I put Marie Brennan’s Tropic of Serpents firmly on my “Good Summer Reads” list.
I like books about daring Victorian women who buck cultural trends and forge off into lives of scholarly adventure.
For instance: I met Amelia Peabody, Elizabeth Peters’ daring Egyptian archaeologist, when I was looking for books on tape or DVD to enliven my hour-long commute. My librarian friend, Cordelia, told me that I couldn’t go wrong with anything read by voice-artist Barbara Rosenblat. I picked up Peters’ Crocodile on the Sandbank, noting that, if I liked the story and the reader, there were many more in the series; they could keep me company as I navigated those long and winding back roads for many a day.
Cordelia was right about Rosenblat; she is an incredible performer. And Amelia Peabody is just the kind of Victorian hero I mentioned; she is smart and bold, prickly and defensive, pigheaded and determined. When her father dies and Amelia inherits, nothing’s gonna keep her down on the farm; she’s going to see Egypt. She stumbles right into the life she wants to live.
I just finished book two, The Tropic of Serpents, in the chronicle of Lady Trent Memoirs, a series by Marie Brennan. I picked up the first book, A Natural History of Dragons, at the library. It was on the New Books shelf; its cover called to me. And, a devoted reader of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books as a young person, I do like me a good dragon tale.
Isabella Camherst, Brennan’s protagonist, is a lot like Amelia Peabody. Although she’s from an alternative universe, Isabella’s Scirland is definitely Victorian, and its mores and restrictions for women very much the same ones Peabody bumped up against.
And of course, the next challenge, the next obstacle, the next straw idol to be demolished, is never far behind.
We know that Isabella is brilliant and clever, artistic and persistent. She thinks, as she pursues her vocation, that she is doing that to the exclusion of any chance of a ‘normal’ feminine life. Goodbye, she assumes, to the comforting support of strong masculine arms and the joy of rocking her own tiny baby to sleep. No hearth, no home, for this chick.
And, of course, the irony is this: the very path guaranteed to separate her from those ‘normal’ goals is the one that leads her to them. Pursuing her dream brings her to marriage and motherhood; Camherst finds her vocation and her relationships inextricably entwined. One begets the other.
Just like Amelia Peabody, I think, triumphantly; there’s an archetype here! And just like Amelia, Camherst finds that she is not the world’s most maternal person. In Tropic, little Jacob is a toddler, and Camherst is on a quest. She rails against a society that applauds a man who leaves his family to pursue adventure, research, new thought–and condemns the woman who does the same. But, comfortable in her widow’s wealth, she leaves her little guy with her family–her reluctant family, it must be noted–and travels to Eriga, in search of a whole new kind of dragon to study.
Eriga offers dicey politics, intrigue, and danger; Camherst’s quest takes her into the Green Hell. She is tested and found, as we always knew she would be, worthy of trust.
I’ll have to read Voyage of the Basilisk to find out more about the next Lady Trent adventures and about Camherst’s maternal role. Amelia Peabody grows into a loving mother; signs are there that Camherst might, too. In the deep jungle, in mortal peril, her thoughts DO turn to little Jacob, and she pens a letter to the boy in case she shan’t return…
I like, too, books where you have to figure out the narrator, just like you’d have to work out the quirks and inconsistencies of an intriguing person you’re getting to know. I wouldn’t call Isabella Camherst (or Amelia Peabody) unreliable, exactly, but there are some areas in which I have to accept that she can’t see herself as clearly as the reader does. Brennan writes as if Camherst (now Lady Trent) is looking back on her life from the lofty distance of advanced age. Isabella’s voice is wry and balanced, literary and scholarly.
So we forget that, as the story unfolds, Isabella is a young, spunky woman. And we only learn, by looking beyond and around the narrator’s words, that she’s a passionate and alluring one, too. The narrator focuses on the quest, and on the obstacles to the quest, but all the time, there’s another side–a beautiful young woman with a magnetic personality is encountering all kinds of romantic possibilities.
Brennan’s official website is called SwanTower, and it’s an interesting place. I browsed through and found out that she plans a fourth book in the Lady Trent series, and that she writes prolifically in the fantasy genre. She offers essays on many topics, and she offers advice to writers. (I think I’ll refer my son to Brennan’s pretty extensive musings on how to craft fight scenes.)
And of course, there’s a brief bio, too, in which Brennan calls herself “…a fantasy author and ex-academic.” Her fields are anthropology, archaeology, and folklore—she certainly weaves all three threads into her writing. Curious, I grab one of Peters’ books from the shelf and look at her book-jacket-bio; sure enough, Peters, too, has an academic background: a PhD in Egyptology. Huh. Two very learned women who turned from the academic world to a literary one, a turn that seems a natural progress in the lives of many great authors. (“Write what you know,” the sage advice goes.)
That authority infuses Brennan’s work. Her created worlds are completely believable, her characters sympathetic, her villains despicable and sometimes pathetic. And she makes the dragons seem very possible; their anatomy is plausible and easy to envision. She notes in an interview with Shawn Speakman that “…there are dragon-type-things found in many parts of the world.” She adds, “I imprinted on Pern.”
I guess I could say I imprinted on Pern too; after Madeleine L’Engle, the Pern books were my next leap into fantasy-worlds created by female authors. Those dragons, too, seemed very real.
As my husband and I walk our normal city neighborhood at night, observing and interacting with animals both domestic and untethered, I think about the dragons. Are they any more exotic or bizarre than the dainty deer who brush-cut my hosta, the cat who rules the neighborhood, or the fireflies who use electric light to attract a mate?
Brennan creates another world, but inhabiting that world illuminates, in some ways, my own.
So. I’m starting a Face Book list, based on a post by John Lauck (please see https://jlauckhouston1.wordpress.com/2015/06/27/summer-books/) of books I’ve read that qualify as quintessential summer reads. Brennan’s Lady Trent Memoirs definitely make the list. And here I go, a not-yet-ex-academic on a quest of my own: what other summer books can I find, read, and add?
What books are on your perennial summer reading list? I’d love to know if you care to share!