Friday 10 November 2017

Within the Sanctuary of Wings

(October 2017)

And so the Lady Trent books reach a suitably rousing conclusion. Suitable in that while great affairs of state and nation are settled with no little help from our protagonist, for most of the book not very much seems to happen at all. It’s Shangri-La with scurvy, in a nutshell.

I should, I suppose, take this chance to look back over the entire series, attempt some sort of summary of its main themes and concerns, but the truth is that I’ve never been wholly sure what the main point of these books actually is. I mean, I’ve enjoyed reading them a lot—Isabella Trent is nothing if not an engaging narrator—but on a thematic level I’ve never quite been able to get my head around their reason for existing. On the one hand you’ve got the anachronism of a woman with very modern views living her life in an analogue late-Victorian/early Edwardian society,* but then you’ve also got the whole secondary-world dragons thing, which anachronism-wise barges straight into the shop and pisses all over everything, including, for example, more quotidian considerations of gender equality and colonialism. When you’ve got something as other as dragons knocking about the place, where does that leave actual human subaltern groups?

Again, to be clear, I’d recommend these books to most people, but ultimately for me they feel like a lot of separate lines of inquiry that, untethered from anything except the compelling voice of their delivery, kind of flail around each other without ever weaving together to form a coherent thread. The plot, for instance, is invariably driven by Isabella’s stubborn streak and huge amounts of overly-convenient good fortune, and as such seems to exist independently of any other aspect of theme or setting. She crashes about the world falling over things and into discoveries and conclusions that any relatively progressive reader can see coming a mile off, and which seemingly serve mainly to confirm the righteousness of modern liberal sensibilities. I once (can’t remember where, sadly) saw Mad Men or Life on Mars described as a sort of nostalgia porn, wherein a significant amount of the audience’s joy lies in a sense of smug superiority about how enlightened we are now** compared to the ‘bad old days.’ You get the same feeling here, which is not necessarily a bad thing to explore, but isn’t really something that necessitates creating a whole (semi-)new world to do so.

I don’t know what question these books are meant to be asking, ultimately. They seem to be inviting us to go after some big ones, but once you look under the hood there’s a rather disparate collection of parts. None of these parts are bad in themselves (and many are very good), but they aren’t connected to each other solidly enough to provide anything but the most superficial sense of drive. Which makes little sense as a metaphor, but then that’s rather the point.

*It’s up for question just how anachronistic that really is, but it’s consistently presented as such in the books.
**We’re not, of course.

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