Category Archives: Ivana’s Reviews

Series Spotlight: The Memoirs of Lady Trent series by Marie Brennan

By the time I was introduced to the Lady Trent series (thank you, Agent Annie!), it was complete, and I devoured the series as a whole rather than one book at a time. So I will be reviewing it as a whole series. The TL:DR version of my review is that I love it!

Series: The Memoirs of Lady Trent
Author: Marie Brennan
Genre: Historical fantasy
Audiobook Narrator: Kate Reading
Titles:

Description: Set in an alternate world much like our own during the nineteenth century, the Memoirs of Lady Trent is a five-book series chronicling the adventures and discoveries of Isabella, Lady Trent, renowned dragon naturalist.


Invested Ivana says…

I have listened to this series now twice and just adore it.

The series is set in a fantasy version of our own world somewhere in the Victorian era. The elderly Isabella, Lady Trent, is writing her memoirs to answer questions about the more personal nature of her adventures and to set the record straight on certain rumors that have been spread about her and about a few politically-driven lies she’s had to tell in the past.

Since the stories are told by Isabella later in life, she has the advantage of being brutally honest about her own behavior and the societal norms she broke in pursuit of her work. Her self-reflection makes the stories very personal and even more entertaining. It reminded me about the times I would listen to my grandmother tell stories about when she was young and did things I could never imagine my grandmother doing. She seemed quite outrageous, but the stories deepened my understanding of and connection to her.

In contrast to the feminine stereotype of the time, Isabella is an intellectual, driven to study the nature and biology of dragons and dragon-esque species. Being a natural historian is not a proper pastime for a gentle-born lady, and so to continue her work, she must buck tradition constantly. She is criticized for everything, from the way she dresses, parents her son, and travels without an escort in the company of men to the way she submits her work to traditionally-male scholarly societies and supports other women in their scholarly pursuits. Even so, we see Isabella persist in finding her own happiness, both intellectual and personal. That makes her a good role model for our own world.

Each book centers around one of her famous adventures to a different part of the globe, and during each adventure, what she discovers that furthers her understanding of dragons. I love the fact that each book introduces us to a new culture, a new way of living, and a new way of thinking.

Each book also focuses on the relationships Lady Trent forms, both with her countrymen and those in the places she visits. These relationships influence so much of Lady Trent’s thinking and choices that, over the course of the series, which covers many years, we see Isabella grow from the child we are introduced to initially to the matron who is telling the story. I love seeing characters grow and develop from their experiences, so I find this part of the series very satisfying.

Unfortunately, Isabella often stumbles into tense political situations during her travels, which doesn’t help her reputation at all. While she sometimes exacerbates the situation, she is often a means of addressing the conflict as well. She introduces a very chaotic element into the highly-controlled Victorian British aesthetic of the time. That contrast makes for some delightful story conflict.

In some ways, I think listening to the audio version of these books is an advantage. Kate Reading, the narrator, is fantastic. Between this series and the Athena Club series, I listened to her voice regularly for a couple of months. She does an amazing job of bringing each character to life. Also, as a listener, I don’t have to stumble over the pronunciation of any of the place or character names in the story.

The one disadvantage of the audio, though, is missing out on the art of Todd Lockwood, which appears throughout the book as maps and sketches Lady Trent makes as part of her scientific study. It adds a lot to the story to see the artwork. I purchased both the audio and Kindle versions of these books in order to see the art, but I believe these would be beautiful books to have in hardcover as part of a fantasy art collection. Perhaps there will someday be a pictorial reference to the dragons of Lady Trent’s world that can keep my Art of Pern books company.

If, like me, you aren’t quite ready to leave Isabella’s world behind, you’re in luck. First, Uncanny Magazine has made a short story available free on their website. The story is a speech given by Jacob, Isabella’s son, to the congregation of the Langley Square First Nakhonian Assembly-House during his coming-of-age ceremony. It is quite entertaining. It’s called On The Impurity of Dragon-Kind.

Second, Brennan has just published a new book in the same world, told from the viewpoint of Lady Trent’s granddaughter. It’s called Turning Darkness Into Light. I just picked up the audio today and will be listening to it and reviewing it very soon.

This is the first of Brennan’s series I’ve read, though I’ve known about her as an author for a while. I’ll certainly be checking out some of her others now. Warrior and Witch have been on my TBR for years, and I’ve heard really good things about her Onyx Court series. I’m so impressed by the Lady Trent series that I imagine I’ve been missing out on some good stuff.

So, if you are a fan of dragons, of Victorian history, of natural history, or of women bucking tradition and getting the last laugh, be sure to check out this series. It won’t disappoint.

European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss

The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club series by Theodora Goss has quickly become one of my favorites, particularly in audio. In fact, when I finished the second book, the third was still two months away from publication! But I wasn’t ready to leave Goss’s world, and I struggled to settle on another book. Eventually, I went back to the Lady Trent series by Marie Brennan because 1) it is also a Victorian-era tale about the power of women, and 2) it is also narrated by Kate Reading, who is a phenomenal voice performer. But as I write this review, I am counting the days until October 1 when the third book in the series, The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl, is available.

Title: European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman
Author: Theodora Goss
Series: Book 02, The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club
Publish Date: July 10, 2018, Simon & Schuester
Genre: Historical fantasy, historical mystery
Narrator: Kate Reading
Source: Purchased

Publisher’s DescriptionMary Jekyll’s life has been peaceful since she helped Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson solve the Whitechapel Murders. Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherine Moreau, Justine Frankenstein, and Mary’s sister Diana Hyde have settled into the Jekyll household in London, and although they sometimes quarrel, the members of the Athena Club get along as well as any five young women with very different personalities. At least they can always rely on Mrs. Poole.

But when Mary receives a telegram that Lucinda Van Helsing has been kidnapped, the Athena Club must travel to the Austro-Hungarian Empire to rescue yet another young woman who has been subjected to horrific experimentation. Where is Lucinda, and what has Professor Van Helsing been doing to his daughter? Can Mary, Diana, Beatrice, and Justine reach her in time?

Racing against the clock to save Lucinda from certain doom, the Athena Club embarks on a madcap journey across Europe. From Paris to Vienna to Budapest, Mary and her friends must make new allies, face old enemies, and finally confront the fearsome, secretive Alchemical Society. It’s time for these monstrous gentlewomen to overcome the past and create their own destinies.

Possible spoilers beyond this point.


Invested Ivana says…

In this second installment of adventures, we again see the ladies of the Athena Club come together to save a young woman from the mad “scientific” designs of her father. Only this time, they have to travel to distant lands to do it. Along the way, they put themselves at risk not only to save the girl but to make greater strides in preventing further abuse in the name of science.

The elements I appreciated about the first book in the series are still here—the way this family of women supports one another and the way they are sacrificing to protect others. As a fan of fantasy, literature, history, and culture, I adore all those elements that Goss brings into the story as well—riding the Orient Express, traveling with a Victorian circus, exploring foreign and exotic lands. I am particularly enamored of the coffeehouse in Budapest. I fear I would be as greedy as Diana in that environment, wanting to sample all its flavorful offerings.

The repetition of specific phrases or story elements persists, but I feel it happens less often. It doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story.

Again, I struggle to find new ways to say how much I love this book. I’m already heavily invested in the characters and their world and am finding the wait for the next book, as I’m sure I will find the wait between books three and four, to be excruciating.

Books in this series

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

Imagine the TV show Penny Dreadful, with all of the characters from classic sci-fi and mystery literature, including The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Island of Dr. Moreau, Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. However, instead of horror, picture it as a late-Victorian-era mystery series with a strong dose of girl power. What you get is the Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club series by Theodora Goss. Let me introduce you to the first book in the series.

Title: The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter
Author: Theodora Goss
Series: Book 01, The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club
Publish Date: June 20, 2017, Simon & Schuester
Genre: Historical fantasy, historical mystery
Narrator: Kate Reading
Source: Purchased

Publisher’s Description: Mary Jekyll, alone and penniless following her parents’ deaths, is curious about the secrets of her father’s mysterious past. One clue in particular hints that Edward Hyde, her father’s former friend and a murderer, may be nearby, and there is a reward for information leading to his capture…a reward that would solve all of her immediate financial woes.

But her hunt leads her to Hyde’s daughter, Diana, a feral child left to be raised by nuns. With the assistance of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Mary continues her search for the elusive Hyde and soon befriends more women, all of whom have been created through terrifying experimentation: Beatrice Rappaccini, Catherin Moreau, and Justine Frankenstein.

When their investigations lead them to the discovery of a secret society of immoral and power-crazed scientists, the horrors of their past return. Now it is up to the monsters to finally triumph over the monstrous.

Possible spoilers beyond this point.


Invested Ivana says…

I find it hardest to review those books I enjoy the most, and so I’m struggling to review this one. I simply love it. I love that all these women come together to form a family. I love that they each have a distinct personality and that they all are so accepting of one another without being too timid about calling one another out. I love how they are all working toward common goals, each in the way that bests uses their talents. I know some of this won’t make sense until you read the book, but the example this book sets for being part of a family, blood-related or not, is a big part of its charm.

Another part I love is how these women are trying to prevent anyone else from being subject to the abuses they have endured. Most of the women in the story have been somehow “created” by their scientifically-minded fathers or keepers. Their primary goal is to prevent other girls from being experimented on or created the way they were. This mirrors much of the activist work we see in women’s groups today, where victims of abuse speak out to prevent others from having to experience the same. I imagine it’s a comment by the author about one of the best qualities we see in women who support each other: We are strong, we survive, and we work hard to protect others.

Being a huge fan of audiobooks, I listened to this book. The narrator, Kate Reading, is amazing. She also narrated the Memoirs of Lady Trent series by Marie Brennan, which I adore. Reading has a large catalog of titles familiar to me, including books by Judy Blume, Jim Butcher, Patricia Cornwell, Sara Donati, Robert Jordan, Sophie Kinsella, Stephanie Meyer, Anne Rice, Brandon Sanderson, V.E. Schwab, and Lauren Willig. She has quickly become one of my favorite narrators, and I will be listening to more of her narration in the future for sure.

However, audiobook listeners may want to download a sample of the ebook or peek at a print book at the bookstore, because the book uses an unusual writing convention, and without the text cues, it may take a bit for the listener to catch on. Essentially, the protagonists of the book, the ladies of the Athena Club, are the ones actually writing the book about their adventures. A character named Catherine is the novelist, and the others insert commentary from time to time. As a result, the book uses both third-person limited and first-person POVs at different points in the story. While it breaks normal convention, it’s done well and is really fun, providing much of the humor in the book.

The only complaint I have, and it’s a minor one, is that bits of the story or even exact phrases are occasionally repeated. Either one of the characters will use the exact phrase they used a few lines ago, or a bit of story will be repeated a couple of times in different places, maybe in the novel text and then the “commentary” text, or maybe in two different places in the story. Those repetitions could be tightened up.

Despite that small complaint, I am in love with this series, particularly in audio. I can’t wait for more adventures with the ladies of the Athena Club.

The Girl In Red by Christina Henry

Christina Henry’s series of reimagined fairy tales continues with The Girl In Red, a post-apocalyptic version of Little Red Riding Hood.

Title: The Girl In Red
Author: Christina Henry
Publish Date: June 18, 2019 by Berkley
Genre: Post-Apocalyptic fiction
Narrator: January LaVoy
Source: Purchased

Publisher’s Description: It’s not safe for anyone alone in the woods. There are predators that come out at night: critters and coyotes, snakes and wolves. But the woman in the red jacket has no choice. Not since the Crisis came, decimated the population, and sent those who survived fleeing into quarantine camps that serve as breeding grounds for death, destruction, and disease. She is just a woman trying not to get killed in a world that doesn’t look anything like the one she grew up in, the one that was perfectly sane and normal and boring until three months ago.

There are worse threats in the woods than the things that stalk their prey at night. Sometimes, there are men. Men with dark desires, weak wills, and evil intents. Men in uniform with classified information, deadly secrets, and unforgiving orders. And sometimes, just sometimes, there’s something worse than all of the horrible people and vicious beasts combined.

Red doesn’t like to think of herself as a killer, but she isn’t about to let herself get eaten up just because she is a woman alone in the woods…

Possible spoilers beyond this point.


Invested Ivana says…

After a deadly virus wipes out most of the population, Red—the only surviving member of her immediate family—travels overland toward her grandmother’s house, hoping Grandma has also has survived. Along the way, she encounters packs of ruthless scavengers, the military, some children, one good person, and a possible mutation to the virus that is even scarier and more deadly than the original strain.

Many characteristics of The Girl In Red are familiar for fans of post-apocalyptic fiction, particularly The Walking Dead (but without the zombies). However, there are several novel elements and some really good characterization that keep it from feeling stale. For example, Red has a prosthetic leg. Imagine what it would be like to travel 300 miles overland through wooded areas with a prosthetic leg.

In flashbacks, the reader gets a good feel for Red’s life before the apocalypse and her family’s dynamic. They serve as great contrasts to her post-apocalypse experience and demonstrate her resilience.

There is one element I thought particularly fun. Red attributes her knowledge and preparedness for the apocalypse to her love of post-apocalypse genre fiction and movies. Henry doesn’t make the mistake of making Red unrealistically capable—fiction is just fiction after all. Red makes her fair share of mistakes, but she is slightly more prepared mentally because she has some idea of what to expect in a post-apocalyptic situation. One role that fiction entertainment plays in our world is allowing us to mentally “practice” in situations that we have never encountered in real life. Red’s actions in this book are a great example of this.

In contrast, Shakespeare appears often in this book. Red’s mother is a professor of Shakespeare, and so some of his work is embedded in Red’s mind as well. Through her, the reader gets just a small taste of “Compare and contrast the relevance of literary Shakespeare and genre fiction in today’s world.”

I like it when characters in a book are readers themselves. It’s a nod from authors to their fans, an acknowledgment of shared interest and inclusion in The Club of Readers.

There are actually lots of themes that could be teased out of this book for a discussion: family dynamics, race (Red is mixed-race), physical disabilities, human behavior during crises, skills necessary for survival, the material nature of modern life. But the strongest theme has to be that of resilience and its ability to see you through difficult times.

My one complaint about this book is that there isn’t more. The story is told from Red’s point of view exclusively, and she’s not a major player in the apocalypse event, just a victim of it. But things happen in her world that I want to know more about, such as where the virus comes from and how widespread its effects are. And what about the possible mutation? A want to know a LOT more about that mutation! And, as always, I want to know what happens to Red next, after this book ends.

But that’s not the story Henry is telling, darn it. I completely understand why those things aren’t explained in detail—they aren’t part of Red’s story. But my curiosity doesn’t care; I want to know more.

Despite the fact that this book appears to be a stand-alone and not a full-blown post-apocalyptic series, it is an enjoyable read. I felt very invested in Red and some of the characters she interacts with. January LaVoy’s narration for the audiobook is excellent, which makes it that much more enjoyable. If you can stand the “not-knowing,” aspects of this book, I recommend it highly.

Our reviews in this series…

While not quite a real series, here are the books in Christina Henry’s retold fairy tales so far along with our reviews:

The Mermaid by Christina Henry

Christina Henry continues her series of fairytale-inspired retellings with The Mermaid, the grown-up version of The Little Mermaid for cynical adults.

Title: The Mermaid
Author: Christina Henry
Publish Date: June 19th, 2018 by Berkley
Genre: Historical fantasy
Narrator: Cassandra Campbell
Source: Purchased

Publisher’s DescriptionOnce there was a mermaid who longed to know of more than her ocean home and her people. One day a fisherman trapped her in his net but couldn’t bear to keep her. But his eyes were lonely and caught her more surely than the net, and so she evoked a magic that allowed her to walk upon the shore. The mermaid, Amelia, became his wife, and they lived on a cliff above the ocean for ever so many years, until one day the fisherman rowed out to sea and did not return.

P. T. Barnum was looking for marvelous attractions for his American Museum, and he’d heard a rumor of a mermaid who lived on a cliff by the sea. He wanted to make his fortune, and an attraction like Amelia was just the ticket.

Amelia agreed to play the mermaid for Barnum, and she believes she can leave any time she likes. But Barnum has never given up a money-making scheme in his life, and he’s determined to hold on to his mermaid.

Possible spoilers beyond this point.


Invested Ivana says…

The Mermaid is a grittier, and probably more accurate, tale of the famous P.T. Barnum than The Greatest Showman, though he isn’t the main protagonist. The central character is Amelia, a mermaid whose curiosity drove her to land. The first part of her life on land is somewhat idyllic. But the later part is full of heartache.

I am absolutely in love with Henry’s retellings of Alice in Wonderland (Alice and The Red Queen). So I expected a lot from The Mermaid. But, while it was a good story and a great audio performance, the story wasn’t quite as dazzling for me. Amelia, the mermaid, gets screwed over by men, and is even somewhat complicit in her own screwing over, though she finds her own strength in the end. I think it’s just not quite as novel a story as Alice — a woman getting screwed over by men is an all-too-familiar story these days.

In Alice, I also enjoyed seeing all the elements of the original story that Henry reinterpreted in her grittier version. That part was missing in The Mermaid, though not through any fault of Henry’s. I haven’t read the original H.C. Anderson version of The Little Mermaid, so if there were reinterpretations, I wasn’t aware of them. But I suspect there aren’t as many quirky characters and images as in Carroll’s tale.

Despite those subjective observations, there is nothing bad about the book. The story is well-written and interesting. The characters are believable and sympathetic. I’d recommend it to fans of The Greatest Showman who want a better taste of what P.T. Barnum was really like.

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