Balancing the Real Audience and the Imaginary Audience in the Memoirs of Lady Trent

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“The Memoirs of Lady Trent” are not, of course, real memoirs. They’re novels, and they take place in a world similar to our own but with a different geography and alternate history. Jews and Muslims are present, practicing their religions in familiar ways–but Christianity just didn’t happen. Anyone who would have been Christian is Jewish. A lot of the countries and geographies are similar, but there are no familiar names. I didn’t actually realize that the main character is Jewish until embarrassingly late.

However, the fictional writer–Isabella Trent–believes that her world is real. And she is writing her memoirs for an audience in her world. Not only that, she is writing to them about familiar stories, having lived a very public and often scandalous life. She is writing a history, and she touches on news articles, scientific journals, academic societies, and many other books.

This gives Marie Brennan a unique challenge: how to maintain the fiction that Isabella is writing to an audience already familiar with many of the high points of her career, while still keeping the reader in suspense.

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Take Isabella’s second marriage (spoilers for the latest book!). It is a well-known scandal in her world, and when the man she married–Suhail–appeared in the third book, everyone in her imaginary audience would have recognized him. Yet, while a real memoir would probably have identified him early on as ‘the man who would become my husband,’ Brennan obviously cannot do this. The tension between Suhail and Isabella is a key part of the third and fourth books, and to have said they would end up married from the outset would have drained all the victory out of the moment when Isabella finally cracks and proposes to him.

It’s a difficult balance for Brennan to maintain, and I admit that re-reading isn’t quite as much fun as I thought it would be. I know, re-reading the third book, that Isabella is an old woman re-living her meeting and romance with her current husband. But you wouldn’t really know it from the book, because Brennan needed to hold onto the will-they-or-won’t-they. But this aside, it’s a hard task Brennan has set herself, and she does it so well she makes it look easy.

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Creating and Breaking a Familiar Story

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I was a bit confused by the latest “Memoir of Lady Trent.” I was expecting a big political upheaval to kick in. I thought there would be a battle, a thrilling chase, a geopolitical firestorm.

I thought this because that was how the last two “Memoirs” went. Go somewhere, study dragons, stumble into a war, play a public and pivotal role in that war, be banned from coming back, go home. A similar plot played in the first novel.

So, as I neared the end of “In the Labyrinth of Drakes,” I was expecting something big to happen. Plots to pay off, a villain to be unmasked. I even thought I knew which character would turn up with an army of bad guys. But nothing happened.

I’m still a little torn on how I feel about this. On the one hand, I felt like the previous two books promised me something, and that promise was broken in this book. I feel a bit of a letdown. On the other hand, Brennan was very clever in designing the plot. The political upheaval is replaced by scholarly upheaval, the shuttered personal becomes public, and all around the book feels fresh.

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Perhaps any experiment with form must accept the risk of breaking promises  made. Some people will probably always feel upset about this. But everything familiar began as unfamiliar, and the greatest joy comes in a promise fulfilled in the most unexpected of ways.

The Memoirs of Lady Trent, Scandalous Victorians, and Fantastic Worlds

 

 

 

 

 

 

I listened to more than thirty hours of “The Memoirs of Lady Trent,” and damn if I didn’t love every minute. Firstly, of course, Kate Reading is an astounding reader. Secondly, Isabella Camhurst is a fantastic character.

Alternate, fantastical histories of the 18th and 19th century have come into fashion recently (see “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), and I couldn’t be happier. I’m a history nerd and a fantasy nerd, so the two come together and I get to read the results.

Throughout history, there have been women who fought the sexism of their times to become Great. These women became queens, pirates, popes, scholars. Sometimes they pretended to be men, sometimes they forced the world to accept them as women.

Starting out listening to the Lady Trent books, I assumed that they would take place in a version of England with dragons. The main character is determined to become a dragon naturalist, in spite of society.

Isabella Camhurst is from England, but it’s not called England. It’s called Skirland, and while the majority of people are indeed white and act in a very English way…they’re also Jewish. There is no Christianity in this world: just Judaism and Islam. There is no England, just a place like England. And Isabella travels across the world, to places “like” Russia, West Africa, China, Indonesia, and many more.

This is awesome. Brennan is able to put together the best of both worlds; she can have her dragons and draw on myths and legends of dragons, and also pull in as much as she wants from world history while also making up whatever societies and characters she desires. The result is a mish-mash world that breathes and lives through the eyes of Isabella Camhurst. Now go read/listen.

 

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