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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.

Series Spotlight: Elemental Assassin by Jennifer Estep

I just finished a massive re-read of every novel, novella, and short story of the Elemental Assassin series. Actually, I listened to most of it, since all seventeen novels and one novella are available in audio. It was fabulous! I just love Gin and the gang and all the justice she brings to Ashland and beyond.

Author: Jennifer Estep
Series: Elemental Assassin
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Narrator: Lauren Fortgang
Cover: Tony Mauro
Source: Purchased

Description (from Goodreads): The Elemental Assassin series focuses on Gin Blanco, an assassin code-named the Spider who can control the elements of Ice and Stone. When she’s not busy killing people and righting wrongs, Gin runs a barbecue restaurant called the Pork Pit in the fictional Southern metropolis of Ashland. The city is also home to giants, dwarves, vampires, and elementals – Air, Fire, Ice, and Stone.

Possible spoilers beyond this point.


Invested Ivana says…

Seventeen novels and ten novellas/shorts make for a lot of time to invest in a series. But long series are perfect for a reader like me who invests heavily in the characters and their lives. Every new book is a chance to visit with my friends, and I always want to know what happens next in their lives because happily-ever-after just doesn’t happen. If you haven’t invested in the series yet, or have just dipped your toe into a book or two, here are some observations about the series that you might want to know.

Ashland is the Gotham City of the South.

By that, I mean that Gin’s world is governed by the rules, not of reality, but of graphic novels. Picture any Batman movie–Ashland, like Gotham City, is chock full of bad guys and their thugs/minions–probably more baddies than regular folk. And some of the “baddies” are actually the good guys! Though there is no Penguin, Catwoman, or Riddler, there is a mix of super-human citizens–giants, dwarves, vampires, and those with elemental magic–who, for the most part, are just as “human” as anyone else but with a few physical bonuses.

The world is highly stylized, with individuals and businesses identifying themselves via runes placed on everything from business cards to jewelry to kitchen decorations. Plus, some villains go in for a theme, dressing themselves, their minions, and their environments like Wild West cowboys, 1920-era mobsters, Renaissance-fair actors, etc. Thugs and minions are killed in droves, but their deaths are of consequence only if they drive the plot forward. Secrets are revealed from beyond the grave as though the deceased had uncanny prescience, and the elimination of each opponent brings a bigger, badder villain forward. And, of course, there are wildly wealthy people everywhere.

While the characters, their motivations, and their relationships are fully fleshed out, rich, and realistic, the sett

ing follows its own rules, similar to those of Gotham City. Understanding those rules allows your suspension-of-disbelief skills to flourish, and you’ll enjoy the story that much more.

There are three main story arcs (so far).

The other day, I was chatting with a friend who was criticizing long series for being “repetitive and formulaic.” Though I understand her point, I argue that it depends on WHICH STORY you’re focused on. As with all good TV and book series, there is the episodic story — each book or short — and there is the story arc — the events that tie a whole season together. I love story arcs. A well-written series pulls me from book to book because there is a compelling arc. Each episode fleshes out the characters, deepens relationships, introduces new players, and gives the characters new knowledge or skills that lead them toward the completion of the arc. Now, I admit that those arcs can be more obvious when you “binge” a series, like I just did. That is why I love rereading books; I get to see how all the pieces fit together toward the story arc. Some readers just don’t have that kind of patience with or invest that much in series, and that’s fine. Stand-alone novels, duologies, and trilogies are made for those kinds of readers.

From what I can see, there are three main story arcs in the Elemental Assassin series. The first five books or so deal with Gin’s back story and her nemesis. The next seven or so books explore the back stories of some of the other main characters while dealing with the consequences of the first arc, including a successor villain that turns the tables on Gin’s world view a bit. This arc may seem a bit meandering to some readers, but new characters are introduced, existing characters are fleshed out, and everything we learn about them pays off in the end. The final arc is in progress at the time of this writing, and I can already tell it’s going to be amazing. After finishing the most recent novel (Venom in the Veins), I’m on the seat of my pants to see what Gin finds out next!

Taken individually, each book is about Gin and her friends solving a mystery and fighting a bad guy, and I guess you could call that repetitive and formulaic if you want. But each episode adds something to the story arc, and that arc is what compels me.

The entire series takes place in a short amount of time.

Though the series has been in progress since 2010, far less than nine years have passed in book time. My best guess is that the whole series takes place over two to three years or so, not counting a couple of “flashback” stories. I want to say there have been two Christmas parties since the first novel — one at Owen’s and one at the Pork Pit (Jennifer–correct me if that’s wrong!) It would be interesting to see a calendar layout marked with the time frame for each book.

It can be hard for readers to keep “book time” and real time separate while reading a series, but it can often help put some things in perspective if you remember how little time has passed in Ashland since we first met Gin.

The audiobook version is fantastic.

If you’re an audiobook fan, you should know that Lauren Fortgang is superb at portraying Gin and all the characters of Ashland. I understand that the appeal of narrators’ voices can be subjective, so take that for what it’s worth, but not only do I find Fortgang fantastic, but after seventeen novels, she is SO totally ingrained in my head as the voice of the Elemental Assassin series. Unfortunately, that made listening to the only novella in audio, Nice Guys Bite, narrated by David Marantz, difficult. Marantz is a fine narrator, but he’s not “the” narrator for this series, and audiobook listeners feel strongly about the continuity of narrators.

So I want to say a huge THANK YOU to Audible for producing Venom in the Veins using Lauren Fortgang even though Pocket dropped the Elemental Assassin series (WTF, Pocket?) and Venom in the Veins was self-published (also thank you to Jennifer and to Tony Mauro for maintaining the continuity of cover art!) I also hope that someday, when publishing rights can all be arranged without breaking the bank, Jennifer can publish an anthology or two of all the shorts and novellas and that Audible will produce them with Fortgang as narrator. Because of Fortgang’s performance, Elemental Assassin is one of those series I’d rather hear than read.

Feeling like there’s no justice in this world? Gin can help!

Hopefully, my observations about the series will spark your interest in reading, re-reading, or listening to Elemental Assassin. But if not, here’s one that might: vicarious bloody justice. Right now, our world feels like Gotham City — full of wealthy, corrupt villains who too often get away with their evil deeds. Even well-adjusted, non-sociopaths need to indulge in a revenge-fantasy or two just to stay sane.

Reading the Elemental Assassin series is a socially-acceptable way to exercise your revenge fantasies. Assassin Gin Blanco goes after those wealthy, manipulating, corrupt, exploiting, entitled asshats, stabs them with her knives, and bathes in their blood. So the next time you feel oppressed by the wealthy, cheated by politicians, or angered by the news, crack open an Elemental Assassin book and let Gin take down the baddies for you.

The Witch Elm by Tana French

Tana French has done it again. Even though The Witch Elm isn’t part of the Dublin Murder Squad series, it’s just as good.

Title: The Witch Elm
Author: Tana French
Publish Date: October 9, 2018 by Penguin
Genre: Suspense
Source: Library

Publisher’s Description: Toby is a happy-go-lucky charmer who’s dodged a scrape at work and is celebrating with friends when the night takes a turn that will change his life – he surprises two burglars who beat him and leave him for dead. Struggling to recover from his injuries, beginning to understand that he might never be the same man again, he takes refuge at his family’s ancestral home to care for his dying uncle Hugo. Then a skull is found in the trunk of an elm tree in the garden – and as detectives close in, Toby is forced to face the possibility that his past may not be what he has always believed.

A spellbinding standalone from one of the best suspense writers working today, The Witch Elm asks what we become, and what we’re capable of, when we no longer know who we are.

Possible spoilers beyond this point.


Agent Annie says…

Tana French’s protagonist, Toby, experiences a severe beating and the resulting mental and physical anguish he goes through is so realistic, it seems as if the author has experienced something similar first hand. I also really enjoyed all the secondary characters, particularly Uncle Hugo. He is such a delight and really seemed to prevent Toby from derailing completely. Reading this book was like being part of Toby’s family and I felt as if I was participating in the complicated relationships.

As the characters are asked to remember their teen years, I found it absolutely believable that each of the three cousins remembered things very differently and that those very different memories were at the root of the mystery.

I give this book 5 stars and highly recommend everything Tana French has written.

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