Today I am interviewing Marie Brennan, author of the new fantasy novel, Within the Sanctuary of Wings, the fifth and final book of The Memoirs of Lady Trent series.
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DJ: Hey Marie! Thanks for agreeing to do this interview!
For readers who aren’t familiar with the series, what is Within the Sanctuary of Wings and then the Memoirs of Lady Trent about?
Marie Brennan: The series as a whole is about a lady adventurer and dragon naturalist in a setting based on our own world in the nineteenth century. Each book describes a particular expedition she went on to study dragons in different regions, eventually building up to an explanation for why she’s one of the most famous people in the world. The foreword to the very first book mentioned a great discovery; this is the book where that discovery happens!
DJ: What were some of your influences for The Memoirs of Lady Trent?
Marie: I’d read a fair bit about the Victorian period for With Fate Conspire, the final book of my previous series (the Onyx Court), so I very much had that in mind. In particular, there’s a tremendous number of fascinating women intellectuals and adventurers who fed into my conception of Lady Trent — Mary Kingsley, Freya Stark, Gertrude Bell, Isabella Bird, and more. I suspect some of Elizabeth Peters’ heroine Amelia Peabody crept in there, too, though I haven’t read any of those books in years.
DJ: Lady Trent is easily one of my all-time favorite female protagonists! Could you briefly tell us a little about her and your other main characters? Do they have any cool quirks or habits, or any reason why readers with sympathize with them?
Marie: The voice has always been one of the biggest appeals of this whole series — for me as well as for my readers! I was barely two paragraphs into writing the first book when that clicked into place. The story is framed as Lady Trent writing her memoirs for an audience in her own world, so you get the conversational effect of first-person narration, and the contrast between the perspective she has as an old woman, and the youthful recklessness she had when she was just starting out.
A lot of people also identify with her passion for science. In fact, I’ve gotten a number of emails and letters from people in fields like biology, ecology, and veterinary science, telling me how much Lady Trent inspires them in their own work. Also, as much as I wish the conditions for this were missing in our own society, a great many people respond to her struggles to overcome the sexism she faces in her work and her private life.
Of the other recurrent characters, I’ve grown to love Tom Wilker, who was a spur-of-the-moment addition to the first novel (one of the other characters needed an assistant). He’s dealing with class prejudice the same way Lady Trent deals with gender issues, and over time the two of them grow from prickly rivalry to a rock-solid professional partnership. Natalie Oscott also has her fans: she’s a spinster by choice (in modern terms, we’d call her asexual) who finds her own passion in engineering. And I can’t leave out Suhail, who is in some ways my authorial self-insert; he’s an archaeologist and a linguist, and my excuse for writing in bits with ancient ruins and mysterious undeciphered languages!
DJ: What is the world and setting of The Memoirs of Lady Trent series like?
Marie: There’s no single answer to this, because it’s a whole world, and the details vary hugely from place to place. It’s easier to talk about the real societies that gave me inspiration. The first book is set in a place like Romania if it were under Russian rule, with the environment based on the Carpathian Mountains. The second book goes to a very West African kingdom (it uses elements of Mali, Ghana, Songhay, Yoruba, and Asante societies), in a savannah environment, and then into a tropical jungle that owes more to the Mbutu people of the Congo. The third book is a voyage around the world, so it stops off in an Aztec-style tropical land, southern-ish China, Indonesia, and Korea before fetching up for the latter half of the story in a Polynesian-type island kingdom. The fourth book’s setting is based heavily on the Syrian desert and surrounding Arab societies. And for the fifth — because authors are terrible sadists — I send Lady Trent into the Himalaya.
In fact, the sheer variety of the setting has been one of the biggest pleasures of writing this series. My academic background is in anthropology, and I’ve loved having the chance to show all the different ways societies can be organized. There are different religions, ranging from some modeled on the real world (both rabbinic and Temple Judaism, and also Islam) to others that are more invented. The second and fourth books both encounter polygynous societies, where one man can have multiple wives; in the fifth book someone asks Lady Trent if all the men she’s traveling with are her husbands, because that society is polyandrous. Keongan culture has a third gender, and the islanders consider Lady Trent as belonging to that group, because of how she behaves. I may not be a field biologist like my protagonist, but boy howdy am I an ethnography nerd . . .
DJ: Isabella references and alludes to many other incidents that are not the focus of the novels. Any chance that you may write some sort of spin off novels or possible short stories about these other expeditions?
Marie: I already have one short story of that type, From the Editorial Page of the Falchester Weekly Review. I may very well write more! But part of the fun, I have to admit, is being able to toss off those references without having to fill them all out in complete detail. It lends realism to the story, because her life extends beyond the edges of the page, in a sense.
DJ: This interview wouldn’t be right without me bringing up dragons 😛 You feature several dozen types of dragons: where did you get your idea for some of them and do you have a favorite?
Marie: The ideas have come from all over. Obviously it starts with the folklore; the dragons having “extraordinary breath” comes from the whole fire-breathing idea, and in particular the dragons in Yelang (the setting’s China equivalent) are taken from the wealth of concepts in Chinese literature and art. But I also look to nature for a lot of my inspiration: the savannah snakes in The Tropic of Serpents behave a lot like cheetahs, while the swamp-wyrms down in the jungle are very crocodilian. Also, I ran a promotional contest at one point where I invited readers to submit concepts for their own dragon types, and chose two to include in the books. Those are the honeyseekers that Lady Trent works with during In the Labyrinth of Drakes, and the Mrtyahaiman mews you’ll see in Within the Sanctuary of Wings.
DJ: Also, the art: GORGEOUS. Todd Lockwood is one of my favorites and I actually have a framed print of Musculature of the Greater Dragon at home! (Though I wish I had it here at med school) 😄 How the does the dragon relationship work between you and Todd? Do you write the dragons and Todd draws them or does Todd ever draw dragons and from that you write about them?
Marie: His anatomical drawings for the third edition Dungeons and Dragons book Draconomicon were one of the inspirations for the series — so yes, in that sense I absolutely have written about the his artwork! Having him do the covers and interior sketches for my series has been an absolute honor. Within the series itself, though, it’s generally gone the other way, with me sending him descriptions of the different breeds after I’ve written the text. But he gets credit for the cover art on Within the Sanctuary of Wings: not only did he draw it, but he’s the one who suggested an “evolutionary sequence”-style image, a la those pictures you see of apes slowly getting more upright until you have a modern human.
DJ: What was your goal when you began writing The Memoirs of Lady Trent series? Is there a particular message or meaning you are hoping to get across when readers finish it? Or is there perhaps a certain theme to the story?
Marie: I try not to think about messages and themes too closely, because if I do, the story usually winds up being preachy. But there are certainly lots of thoughts in the story about science, about the process of discovery (including discovering that your earlier ideas were incorrect and now you need to walk them back), about pursuing your passions and the potential costs of doing so, about gender and class and being a foreigner in someone else’s homeland, trying to achieve your own goals while still being considerate of those around you.
DJ: I’m always curious when authors finish a series, how close to the original course they stayed when it is finally completed or if it ended up evolving and changing. Did the plot stay the same as you had first imagined it? How about the ending? The evolution of your characters?
Marie: I’m honestly pretty terrible at outlining, so there was relatively little in the way of “original course” for me to stick to or diverge from! The general plot stayed the same, in that I knew from the start what Lady Trent’s most famous discovery would be, and she goes to the same parts of the world that I expected her to. The specifics of what she does in those places, though, were pretty vague until I started actually writing. Probably the biggest change is in the character of “Lord Trent”: when I drafted the original pitch, I had no real idea who he was going to be, and I knew I didn’t know. As a result, his pitch incarnation not only bears no resemblance to his eventual reality, but it comes across as exactly the placeholder it was.
DJ: When I read, I love to collect quotes – whether it be because they’re funny, foodie, or have a personal meaning to me. Do you have any favorite quotes from The Memoirs of Lady Trent series that you can share with us?
Marie: There’s a moment during In the Labyrinth of Drakes where Tom pulls her up short of doing something foolish by saying “It would be a damned stupid way to get killed.” Her immediate thought is, “A damned stupid way to get killed might have described any number of incidents in my life, had my luck been only a little different.” That’s probably my favorite line in the entire series, because it is so, so true.
DJ: Now that Within the Sanctuary of Wings is released, what is next for you?
Marie: I’m working on another novel set in that world, two generations later. It’s going to be the story of Lady Trent’s granddaughter, black market antiquities smugglers, and the translation of a lost epic from the Draconean civilization — and I’m already having a blast writing it.
DJ: Where can readers find out more about you?
Author Newsletter: http://www.swantower.com/newsletter/
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/Marie-Brennan/e/B001JSHJ9M/
DJ: Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to answer my questions!
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*** Within the Sanctuary of Wings is published by Tor Books and is available TODAY!!! ***
Buy the Book:
Amazon | Barnes & Nobel | Goodreads | Kobo
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The conclusion to the thrilling memoirs of Lady Isabella Trent and her legacy of dragon evolutionary research and anthropological adventures.
After nearly five decades (and, indeed, the same number of volumes), one might think they were well-acquainted with the Lady Isabella Trent–dragon naturalist, scandalous explorer, and perhaps as infamous for her company and feats of daring as she is famous for her discoveries and additions to the scientific field.
And yet–after her initial adventure in the mountains of Vystrana, and her exploits in the depths of war-torn Eriga, to the high seas aboard The Basilisk, and then to the inhospitable deserts of Akhia–the Lady Trent has captivated hearts along with fierce minds. This concluding volume will finally reveal the truths behind her most notorious adventure–scaling the tallest peak in the world, buried behind the territory of Scirland’s enemies–and what she discovered there, within the Sanctuary of Wings.
Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for material. She is currently misapplying her professors’ hard work to the Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent; the first book of that series, A Natural History of Dragons, was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and won the Prix Imaginales for Best Translated Novel. Cold-Forged Flame, the first novella in the Varekai series, came out in September 2016. She is also the author of the Doppelganger duology of Warrior and Witch, the urban fantasies Lies and Prophecy and Chains and Memory, the Onyx Court historical fantasy series, and more than forty short stories. For more information, visit www.swantower.com.