Interview with author Marie Brennan + GIVEAWAY

I got to interview Marie Brennan, the author of A Natural History of Dragons and its recently released sequel The Tropic of Serpents, which I consider one of the best new fantasy series’ that I’ve read over the past year. Marie is a former academic with a background in archaeology, anthropology, and folklore, which she now puts to rather cockeyed use in writing fantasy. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to many short stories and novellas, she is also the author of A Star Shall Fall and With Fate Conspire (both from Tor Books), as well as Warrior, Witch, Midnight Never Come, In Ashes Lie, and Lies and Prophecy. You can find her online at SwanTower.com.

I’m also giving away two sets of A Natural History of Dragons and The Tropic of Serpents – see the bottom of this post for details.


Marie BrennanThanks for doing this interview, Marie! A Natural History of Dragons and The Tropic of Serpents were two of my favourite books from last year (I was lucky enough to receive an ARC in December) and I’m thrilled that you agreed to an interview.

1. Isabella’s world is clearly an Earth-analogue. Why did you make the decision not to set it in our world, and how much historical research do you usually do for each setting?

I wanted the ability to comment on real-world history and culture (which is why I didn’t invent a setting out of whole cloth), without being constrained by the specifics of how things happened in our own past. There’s always alternate history, of course — but if I wanted to write about a version of West Africa where the slave trade never really took over, I would personally feel obligated to work out what changed in order to send events down a different path, because just hand-waving it would cheapen the significance of the actual conditions. And if I worked it all out very meticulously, then I would have to convey that to the reader, and pretty soon I’m writing something other than books about dragons.

Not to mention the effect the dragons themselves would have on history!

As for research, I do a fair bit of reading into the cultures I’m using as my inspiration, trying to get a feel for social organization, religion, that sort of thing. Nothing gets replicated with 100% fidelity — the dominant “European” religion is based on Judaism, I put Finnish saunas (and Russian overlords) in the Romanian-inspired Vystrana, and Bayembe incorporates elements of both the Ashanti and the Yoruba, to name just a few examples — but I enjoy doing that kind of research, because it teaches me not just to default to the familiar.

2. How many memoirs does Lady Trent end up writing? It seems like her exploits will take up at least a dozen volumes!

Not everything in her life merits a whole book! There will be five in total, each one covering a different major expedition.

3. When do we meet Lord Trent?

Now, that would be telling . . . ;-)

4. Can you give us a little hint about what the third book is about, and what excites you the most about it?

It’s called Voyage of the Basilisk, and the title is a pretty good pointer toward its general topic: Isabella goes on a voyage around the world, a la Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, to do a comparative study of sea-serpents and dragons in other regions. I think the bit I’m most excited for is the archaeologist character I introduced — someone interested in Draconean ruins. Quite apart from the fact that I used to be an archaeologist and therefore share his interests, he was a lot of fun to write.

5. Are you interested in ever releasing Lady Trent’s non-memoir books? I would love to read her fluffy travel book – I’m sure it would have a lot of hidden snark!

This seems to be something a lot of people would go for, so maybe! It would be a nifty side volume to add to the series.

6. Could you tell us a bit about your non-Lady Trent books? (I haven’t read any of them yet, but I plan to!)

I have three other series out there, though one of them is only in its first volume so far. The Onyx Court is a set in London during different historical periods, with a faerie court hidden beneath the city interfering with its politics. The doppelganger books are more straightforward adventure fantasy, in a secondary world with witches and people who are basically ninja by another name, and then Lies and Prophecy is the first in a series of near-future urban fantasies, in a version of our world where psychic gifts have become common.

7. What is your writing process for a new book like? Do you start with the characters, the plot/themes, or the world?

Inasmuch as I can generalize, I guess it’s usually a character in a situation or setting. The Memoirs of Lady Trent, for example, started with the notion of a natural historian trying to study dragons, which lent itself very well toward a Victorian-type setting. Lies and Prophecy started with a young woman studying divination at college. I usually have to play around with the idea for a while before I start figuring out the plot, though there have been exceptions.

8. What are some books you think everyone should read?

This is the kind of question that makes me wave my hands inarticulately, because where do I start? I think I’ll recommend Diana Wynne Jones, a British children’s author who wrote some truly amazing stuff. I grew up on her books and still love them today — to the point where, when she passed away a few years ago, I re-read all her works and blogged about them as I went.

9. If you had to write a book about Isabella teaming up with a  character from another fictional universe, who would it be and why?

I think she would get along splendidly with Kate and Cecy from Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevemer’s Sorcery and Cecilia. And Isabella would be delighted to have magic to help out in her work!


Giveaway

As I mentioned above, Tor has given me two sets of these books to give away! To enter, please email me at kriti@justaworldaway.com with subject “The Tropic of Serpents” and your name and mailing address (US/Canada only). This giveaway is open until April 21, 2014.

If you can’t decide whether to enter, here are the covers and blurbs to help you out.

A Natural History of Dragons

12974372All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.

Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.

The Tropic of Serpents

Tropic Of SerpentsAttentive readers of Lady Trent’s earlier memoir, A Natural History of Dragons, are already familiar with how a bookish and determined young woman named Isabella first set out on the historic course that would one day lead her to becoming the world’s premier dragon naturalist. Now, in this remarkably candid second volume, Lady Trent looks back at the next stage of her illustrious (and occasionally scandalous) career.

 Three years after her fateful journeys through the forbidding mountains of Vystrana, Mrs. Camherst defies family and convention to embark on an expedition to the war-torn continent of Eriga, home of such exotic draconian species as the grass-dwelling snakes of the savannah, arboreal tree snakes, and, most elusive of all, the legendary swamp-wyrms of the tropics.

 The expedition is not an easy one. Accompanied by both an old associate and a runaway heiress, Isabella must brave oppressive heat, merciless fevers, palace intrigues, gossip, and other hazards in order to satisfy her boundless fascination with all things draconian, even if it means venturing deep into the forbidden jungle known as the Green Hell . . . where her courage, resourcefulness, and scientific curiosity will be tested as never before.

“A Natural History of Dragons” and “The Tropic of Serpents” by Marie Brennan

12974372When I first saw the cover of A Natural History of Dragons, I knew I was going to love the book. (I know the adage about not judging a book by its cover, but come on, it’s gorgeous!) The book blurb only furthered that impression – a Victorian-style memoir by Lady Trent, who has defied convention to follow her passion and become the leading dragon naturalist of her day.

Isabella has been fascinated with the natural world (but especially the dragon family) ever since her cook taught her how to preserve sparklings in vinegar when she was seven. She knows that this hobby can only ever be a passing fancy for a lady of her station, but as luck would have it, she has the opportunity to travel to the mountains of Vystrana on a scientific expedition to study their fabled rock-wyrms. This journey, of course, turns out to be far more arduous than Isabella imagined it would be – involving not just inflamed dragons but complex politics, vengeful gods, and exhilarating discoveries.

Given this premise and that beautiful cover, I had really high expectations for the book, and they ended up being comfortably exceeded. Isabella is a fantastic protagonist – she tries very hard to reconcile her natural curiosity with what’s expected of her, and although she doesn’t always succeed, it’s still endearing. She’s no rebel with a twenty-first century sense of morals and propriety; she’s a woman of her time that is just very passionate about scientifically studying dragons.

A Natural History of Dragons also has a fascinating world. It is clearly based on 18th-19th century Earth, with Isabella’s homeland being analogous to England, and Vystrana similar to Eastern Europe. There are dragons, but they are just natural beasts – there is no “magic”; although the sense of wonder that Marie Brennan with new scientific discoveries is even better than magic. We learn a lot about the world through the political intrigue and the other mysteries in the book, like ancient ruins of a civilisation known as the Draconeans.

Other than that, the writing is great (I love Isabella’s forthright voice sprinkled with a copious amount of dry wit) and the plot is intriguing but this book really shines because it also packs quite the emotional punch – you really feel for Isabella through her disappointments, excitements, hopes, and sorrows. It’s a joy to see her come into her own over the course of this book. (Also, there’s one moment which you will instantly recognise when you encounter it where you just want to set something on fire.)


Okay, I’m also supposed to be writing about the sequel as well, so I’m going to stop talking about A Natural History of Dragons now.

Tropic Of SerpentsIn The Tropic of Serpents, it has been three years since the very eventful Vystrani expedition, and Isabella is far more confident in her abilities and far less concerned with what the world thinks of her. She jumps at the chance to go on an expedition to the continent of Eriga, home of many little-known varieties of dragons. However, Eriga makes her previous expedition look cushy – strange customs, warring countries (and more politics!), oppressive weather, hundreds of killer species, the list goes on.

All the elements that made the previous book such a success are still present in this one – Isabella continues to be awesome, the writing is beautiful, the worldbuilding is captivating. Eriga is an African analogue (except without as much rampant slavery/exploitation, I think), and there are many cool African-inspired things that this book explores, from stereotypical “big game” hunters to different views on gender and property ownership.

This is not just a series for light, fun reading – Isabella faces some heavy moral dilemmas. She has changed a lot from the first book (mostly as a result of the events of that book) and her character growth is very different. She is not quite as wide-eyed and eager, but her curiosity and competence still make her very compelling. She also takes more of a direct role in events this time; instigating rather than reacting, and you can definitely see her along the path to evolving into the somewhat cantankerous older woman that she is in the forewords.

I really enjoyed the supporting characters in this book; especially Natalie. It’s interesting to see Isabella’s choices already causing ripples in the freedom of other women, and Natalie had a great story arc from being the woman desperate to escape her expected place to society to becoming more mature and confident (all while inventing a glider!) I also loved the burgeoning respect and friendship between Isabella and Mr. Wilker.

I don’t have much to say about the plot except that I do like how the plot always ends up being relevant to major scientific discoveries that Isabella makes. I wish we still lived in a time when science was a new frontier and enthusiasts could make new scientific discoveries and/or invent things easily (okay, I don’t actually, because modernity has its benefits, but these books really make me wistful).

I’m terrible at endings, but I’m really excited to see what Isabella does next.


If you made it this far, you might be interested in my interview with author Marie Brennan and giveaway of two sets of both these books.

“The Black Count” by Tom Reiss

The-Black-Count-by-Tom-ReissI’m trying to read more diversely this year, and I finally read some non-fiction. I won an ARC of this book way back in 2012 but never got around to reading it, and I was intrigued to find out that it won the Pulitzer and a host of other awards in that time.

The Black Count is a biography of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, the father of the famous novelist Alexandre Dumas and the inspiration for many of his stories, particularly The Count of Monte Cristo. Dumas was the son of a French nobleman and an African slave. He was also a martial hero, rising from a lowly private to general-in-chief of an army in only a few years – the highest ranking person of color in the Western world until the 1970s. His story rivals the ones in his son’s books – a shipwreck, suspected poisoning, foreign dungeons, and finally being ostracised because of changes in France’s political climate and Napoleon’s personal ire.

I really enjoyed this book – Tom Reiss is a great writer working with a great subject. I couldn’t wait to see where Dumas’ life took him, but I also never felt like Reiss took any liberties with the truth – everything was meticulously cited. I learned a lot about France’s colonial history as well, which I didn’t know much about. I can’t believe that someone who broke as many barriers as Thomas-Alexandre Dumas isn’t more well known, but thanks to Reiss’ efforts, that will hopefully now change.

I’m also hoping that Thomas-Alexandre Dumas shows up in the recently announced Assassin’s Creed game set during the French Revolution.

“Words of Radiance” by Brandon Sanderson

worSome context for this review: I’m a huge Brandon Sanderson fan, and I thought The Way of Kings was his best book, so I was really sure I would love this book. I re-read the first book in anticipation, and I couldn’t stop thinking about what would happen next. I’m glad (but not surprised) to say that I wasn’t disappointed at all.

Spoilers for The Way of Kings follow.

Words of Radiance picks up right where the previous book left off, with Jasnah and Shallan on their way to the Shattered Plains and a newly confident Dalinar Kholin plotting with Elhokar on how to unite the highprinces. As expected, both efforts run into some difficulty. I’m not going to say any more about the plot because I don’t want to give anything away. I’ll just say that events take some pretty shocking turns, and also some wonderful ones.

This was advertised as “the Shallan book”, and we certainly learn a lot more about her in it. It is spread out over several flashbacks, and we don’t get all of it until the end (which drove me crazy, because I had to constantly keep myself from skipping ahead to the next flashback). Her story was not what I expected, and I ended up liking her even more because of it – she’s been through a lot and turned out fairly well. Her powers are tied perfectly to her story, and I can’t wait to see what she does with them next.We also learn a lot more about the world of Roshar and the wider events going on in this book (often through the perspective of a one-time narrator). It was especially nice to get a Parshendi viewpoint, and see their side of things first-hand. A lot more also happens that I thought Sanderson would wait a few more books to reveal, which is pretty exciting. The world is changing quickly.

I really like that the heroes in this book are not inherently noble and good; they don’t always know what the right thing to do is. Instead, they are the products of their experiences, and they have to struggle with it. If there was a theme to this book, I’d say it was the characters coming to terms with themselves – Dalinar did this in the first book, and now it’s everyone else’s turn.Some random observations:

  • We get a lot more Adolin in this book, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
  • There is romance in this book, and it was fun. I’m just hoping it doesn’t turn into a love triangle, because that would be frustrating.
  • Roshar is a pretty small place, because characters I never thought I’d see again return, and are given good character development.
  • Some characters that I thought would be pretty significant given the way the last book ended didn’t end up getting much screen (page?) time.
  • I love that each of the Stormlight Archive books is named after a fictional book – I hope that trend continues.
  • Even though we learned a lot in this book, there are so many unanswered questions…

I’m not saying this was a perfect book, though – I had some issues. Many of the characters suffer a big shock in the book, and I felt like they took in stride too easily. Except one person, no one seemed to think about or talk about it. I was also annoyed that some plot developments happened off-screen, but I guess a lot of ground was covered in this book that wouldn’t have been able to be covered if we’d spent time with that character. However, my only major complaint is that I have to wait a year or more for the next book.

“Arrows of the Queen” by Mercedes Lackey

arrows-of-the-queen-1I’ve been wanting to read Mercedes Lackey for a long time, but she’s so prolific that I had no idea where to start! But then I received Arrows of the Queen as one of my SantaThing (LibraryThing’s Secret Santa type event) books for Christmas, which is apparently Lackey’s first published book, so it seemed like a great place to start.

Arrows of the Queen is set in the country of Valdemar, which is protected by the noble Heralds and their horse-like Companions. Talia is a young girl from a remote homesteading culture that is selected by a Companion and taken to become a Herald – something she has dreamed of all her life, but never actually dreamed would happen. Her task is to be the advisor to the Queen, which means she has to learn a lot in very little time.

There is not much of a plot to this book; it focuses mainly on Talia settling in and feeling at home with her destiny to be a Herald and training in the Collegium. She solves some problems, learns to cope with bullying, loss and rejection, and grows up. The Heralds are all ridiculously honourable, which makes for little conflict, and the few conflicts that occur are usually resolved off-screen. The characters all have their own distinct personality, but Lackey does a lot of telling, not showing – I don’t know if that was just a stylistic choice or because it was her first book.

Despite the simplicity of the story, the book never felt boring – the character interactions were charming, the events flew by quickly, and Talia dealt with some pretty complex issues. I expected the narrative style to grate on me after a while, but it never did.

I’m looking forward to reading about the rest of Talia’s adventures and more Valdemar tales afterwards!

“Expiration Day” by William Campbell Powell

expdayI’ve started avoiding the entire YA genre because pretty much every book I hear about seems to involve an implausible dystopia built around societies of arbitrarily capitalised Nouns and a female teenager that disrupts it whilst choosing between her “nice” and her “sexy” love interests. When I read about the premise of Expiration Day (a young woman discovers that many of her classmates are androids and her society is not all it seems), I figured it would be more of the same. I was not expecting the thoughtful, character-driven science fiction story that it actually was.

In the near future, most humans are no longer fertile, and human-like androids are used to substitute for children. We follow Tania Deeley, a vicar’s daughter, through her diary entries from age eleven onwards. This book is a coming of age novel; the “Expiration Day” mystery (why do androids need to eventually be returned to the corporation that made them?) is not important except for when it drives Tania’s story forward. We watch Tania grow up and slowly learn more about the world around her and herself, supported by a wonderful and three dimensional cast of secondary characters.

The worldbuilding is pretty interesting too; I was initially sceptical of the premise (android children seemed implausible), but Powell has constructed a world where it makes sense. The only quibble I have was with the ending, which seemed far too neat.

In conclusion, if you’re a YA fan, read this! If you’re getting disillusioned with YA tropes, read this!

“The Quiet War” by Paul McAuley

QuietWarThe Quiet War is set in the 23rd century in a fully colonised solar system. War is brewing between conservative Earth and the solar system colonists called Outers, who push the envelope on what it means to be human constantly. The protagonists of the book are very different, but they are caught in this building momentum – an ambitious geneticist whose star is rising, a genetically-engineered clone soldier, a junior scientist whose curiosity makes her a liability, a pilot who volunteers to test a dangerous new technology, and a power-hungry diplomat.

I expected The Quiet War to be focused on the military, but instead it’s a slow burning political book that portrays the inevitability of conflict, despite almost nobody actually wanting one. It does this rather well, hampered only by the frequent and long passages on the technical details of ecosystem building (which are fascinating, but don’t add much to the story – atmosphere can be overdone).

McAuley’s descriptive abilities are put to good use when he describes the colonised solar system, though – the Outers’ colonies are vividly beautiful and inspire awe. It seems like a doable near-future vision of space colonisation, which is something I would love to see happen in my lifetime.

The protagonists are not terribly sympathetic, but they do a good job of illustrating how people from pretty much every walk of life are drawn into the war. Some of the protagonists’ quirks (Sri’s odd relationship with her son, for example) seemed like attempts to make the character multidimensional, but instead ended up feeling pointlessly uncomfortable. I think one particular viewpoint (Cash) could’ve been totally cut – I didn’t really get what he added to the story, since Dave 8 had had the whole “engineered soldier PoV” covered.

The Quiet War is fairly standalone, but I think it could use a little closure on the war, so I’m looking forward to reading the next installment, Gardens of the Sun.

“Consider Phlebas” by Iain M. Banks

I’ve heard a lot about Iain M. Banks’ Culture universe, but hadn’t read any of his books for a long time. I was inspired by the start of the new year to set up a group read of all of the books over on LibraryThing, and Consider Phlebas was the first book I read in 2014.

8935689Consider Phlebas follows Bora Horza Gobuchul, a spy and assassin for the Idirans, who are at war with the Culture. He is sent on a mission to retrieve a lost Mind, an Culture AI, who has landed on one of the forbidden Planets of the Dead. Along the way, he has incredible adventures and narrowly avoids capture by the Culture. Despite all the action-adventure, I would not call this a fun book, but it was a very, very good book.

Unlike most of the books I read, I had a fair amount of preconceptions going into this one, since I’d heard about the Culture for so long (Wikipedia calls it “a post-scarcity semi-anarchist utopia consisting of various humanoid races and managed by very advanced artificial intelligences”). I was expecting a dense hard SF novel with unfathomably alien characters and plot primarily driven by worldbuilding ideas. I was not expecting the poignant character development or the incisive look at the sidelines of war, and those are what made this book great.

Two minor criticisms – one of the chapters has a fair amount of visceral body-horror, which I did not enjoy at all; I wish that Banks had chosen to display the craziness of his universe some other way. I also wish that there was more insight into the Culture, and how it works from the inside, but there are plenty more books in the universe for me to get that.

“Burning Paradise” by Robert Charles Wilson

16059400Burning Paradise follows Cassie Klyne and various members of her family, who are members of a secret organisation that knows the truth about humanity’s history. They are in hiding; since Cassie’s parents and many more Society members have been killed for this knowledge, and it seems like a new round of killings is about to begin.

This book takes an interesting premise – a spacefaring alien hivemind has been subtly influencing human affairs, resulting in an alternate history where World War I never happened – and transforms it into an incredibly dull book. The characters are flat, and what personality they do display is unlikeable or some flavour of paranoid. The central conflict makes no sense; the human characters seem superfluous to the plot. The ending seems to have been intended to pack an emotional punch, but it just came across as nonsensical to me.

The aliens are supposedly intelligent but lack self consciousness (despite its ability to interfere with human communication with specific agendas and its ability to control human avatars that are indistinguishable from natural humans) – this is taken for granted and constantly touted by the scientist protagonist. Since this distinction is emphasised so much, and I figured a scientist wouldn’t be so certain about the nature of sentience so easily, I expected something to come of it, but all it seems to do is be a plot device to dehumanise the aliens to justify the characters’ hatred.

The other significant thing I disliked about this book was its portrayal of humanity as chomping at the bit to go to war, stopped only by missing telegrams and edited messages. I found it implausible and incredibly pessimistic. This view of humanity seems to carry to the individuals in this book too – like I mentioned, they were bland/boring at best and paranoid and unlikable at worst. Burning Paradise wasn’t a pleasant book to read, and it didn’t have anything else to redeem it, either.

“Ancillary Justice” by Ann Leckie

Leckie_AncillaryJustice_TPI’ve been hearing rave reviews of Ancillary Justice everywhere, so when I finally got my copy, I pounced on it and finished it that very night. Despite the sky-high expectations, I was not disappointed – it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.

The protagonist of Ancillary Justice is Breq, the sole remnant of the sentient starship Justice of Toren of the Radch Empire.  She (it?) has been seeking vengeance after the rest of her was destroyed, and on a remote, icy planet, she’s getting close to the end of her quest. I don’t want to say any more about the premise because anything I say would focus on only a small part of what this book encompasses, and I think that would be doing it a disservice.

Breq’s viewpoint is fascinating – she is someone who is accustomed to perceiving and processing millions of things in many different locations and ways – sometimes through pieces of mechanical equipment, sometimes through human bodies (called ancillaries). She looks human but has never been human, so the things she pays attention to and the thoughts she has are very different. The story alternates between Breq’s present quest, and the events that led to it (when Breq had her full capabilities as Justice of Toren), so we see her character evolve (devolve?).

Ancillary Justice examines humanity in an incredibly compelling way – by omission. Breq pays absolutely no attention to the fact that her ancillaries were once fully human, or to other characters’ dismay over that fact. There is one disturbing scene where a new ancillary is connected to the ship, and the only thing the ship comments on as it squelches the human’s memories is that it is irritated that the host doesn’t know any new songs that it could learn. The way supporting characters feel is also clear through Breq’s narration – some are in love, some are scared, but much of the time, Breq has no awareness of what their actions mean, or even of her own feelings.

Many of the other concepts in this novel are also explored via omission – individuality and gender are two examples. Justice of Toren‘s individuality is murky – each ancillary unit has its own personality (or maybe just Breq’s origin – One Esk?), but they’re part of the ship. The Lord of the Radch, Anaander Mianaai, further adds to this murkiness – supposedly she is a single entity with thousands of genetically identical bodies – but is she? Gender is similar – The Radch Empire is a post-gender society, and Breq has a really hard time identifying people’s gender in other societies. I tried really hard to keep track of people’s “real” genders for the first few chapters, but then came to realise it didn’t matter at all.

Despite all the hard science-fictional concepts, Ancillary Justice never gets lost in its own ideas – it is well-paced and extremely readable all the way through. I could go on and on about pretty much everything in this book – the worldbuilding, its exploration of another half a dozen concepts, the characters, and much more, but instead I’ll just tell you that this is one of the most original and ambitious books I’ve read, and exhort you to read it as soon as possible!