Lady Trent book covers and an ocean cake.
The Tropics of Serpents: A Memoir by Lady Trent written by Marie Brennan
Join me in discussing Lady Trent and her extended study of dragons. As we draw closer to JordanCon time is starting to run short. There is still time to read a few more books before the convention. Each is around 12 hours of audio listening. By now I hope people have checked out Marie Brennan’s website to learn more about her. There is also a good collection of articles about and by Brennan on Tor.com, including her take on RPG campaigns.
JordanCon family, life hit. I fully intended to have two different articles about these books. Then I fell and injured my hand with less than 3 weeks to the con. Typing is slow going; however, I still want to provide everyone with more about our author guest of honor’s work. Toward that end, this article will cover a summary of book two and three from the Trent Memoirs. It will also showcase a fanart cake I made in appreciation of the sea serpents in book three. Thankfully the cake was made a week before life went sideways.
Discussing the books this way will include spoilers, but as in my first article, major book spoilers will be below warning lines.
In The Tropics of Serpents, the now widowed Isabella Camherst embarks on an expedition to the continent of Eriga to study savannah dragons and many other species. On this trip, Isabella takes the steps that will lead her truly down the road as Scirland’s premier dragon naturalist. The elder Lady Trent also warns readers in the preface that scandals and gossip abound for this portion of her life.
Joining her on the adventure this time is Mr. Thomas Wilker, assistant to the Earl of Hillford, and Miss Natalie Oscott, the earl’s granddaughter. Lord Hillford is around for moral and financial support, but his health does not enable him to travel. Along the way, the group meets Erigans such as: Faj Rawango, Galinke, Okweme, Akinimanbi, and Yeyuama. The Erigan’s are from different backgrounds. They do not share a religion, a culture, or skin tones with the Scirling characters, nor with each other quite often. Readers will see the implied and, at times, overt racism of this world.
Eriga is a tropical land that invokes images of African savannahs and rainforests with a vastly different power structure than found during Earth’s Victorian history. It is also filled with iron ore deposits in a world hungry for iron. The cultures represented by the various Erigan characters appear to be a blending of African cultures. I appreciate this blending, so that nothing feels like a parody. Instead it feels like Brennan is trying to show the cultures as real and fully developed, though the reader is not immersed in the nuances.
The main focus of the narrative is about the study of dragons—from the savannah snakes of Bayembe, to the Moulish swamp-wyrms inside the Green Hell—and what Isabella is willing to endure in pursuit of these studies. Even when others want her to stop.
Map of Eriga by Rhys Davies. Swamp-wyrm by Todd Lockwood.
Spoilers: The Tropics of Serpents
The real strength of The Tropic of Serpents is in the character development. In book one, Thomas Wilker is introduced as Lord Hillford’s assistant. A minor criticism I had was he never became a 3D character in my mind. Brennan completely changes that in this installment. She wrote about this transformation inside her mind on a blog post several years ago. In this book Wilker and Isabella develop a strong working relationship, and more importantly a true friendship. A friendship that is beautifully free of any sexual tension between the two characters, though outsiders kept trying to see some and cause troublesome rumors to boot. I greatly appreciated how a ceremony to banish witchcraft allowed for frank conversations between all the main characters.
Natalie Oscott transforms from a one scene character into Isabella’s true companion. She is an engineer at heart and her designs help drive the action. Oscott, like Isabella, wants a life different from the expectations of a Scirling noble woman. Unlike Isabella, her father is not supportive of these goals. Thankfully, her grandfather and friends do support her actions.
Brennan digs into the realities of being a “lady adventurer” more in this book. From dealing with unwanted advances to dealing with menses in different cultures. Not offending local norms plays a major role in how the subjects are handled. Being a young widow and mother does not free Isabella from marriage expectations, despite what she might wish. For those hoping to see different sexual preferences expressed, the topic is touched upon lightly and more favorably than typical Victorian era novels.
The conclusion of the novel takes a hard turn away from the study of dragons after Isabella performs a near miraculous feat with the help of Oscott’s engineering skills. She earns the right to learn more about the swamp-wyrms, just in time to defeat an army with them. Readers are teased with more Draconean ruins and rumors of treason. It’s almost unfair how fast paced book 2 is in the last few chapters. Yet it leaves Isabella and Wilker with strong lessons learned about the dangers of making promises rashly. These lessons serve them well in the next installment of the series.
End of Book 2 Spoilers.
The Voyage of the Basilisk: A Memoir by Lady Trent written by Marie Brennan
The Broken Sea by Rhys Davies.
If you decide to pick up physical copies of these books, I highly recommend the hardback versions. Not only is each book printed with beautiful interior artwork; each book is printed in a different color scheme too. Book three, to match Todd Lockwood’s impressive cover illustration, is printed in blue. Most appropriate for a story that takes place largely at sea and on islands.
Readers join Lady Trent six years after her Eriga trip as she, her son Jake, and Tom Wilker embark on a voyage around the world in search of sea-snakes and more dragons. She and Tom are gathering information to question the nature of dragon classification. If successful, both might achieve the recognition from the Philosophers’ Colloquium they crave, despite the barriers of gender and class that have blocked their paths.
The Voyage is my favorite installment of the first three books. It might be due to the Keonga islands, inspired by the Polynesians islands and people. It could be the introduction of the archaeologist character named Suhail from Akhia. It could also be the sheer scope of the adventure told. It’s a literal voyage around the world, which takes them on a two year adventure visiting many parts of the world barely mentioned until this point.
Beyond the study of dragons, readers learn more about the ancient Draconian civilization that has popped up in the other books. Now more links are being drawn between them and the study of modern dragons and sea serpents.
Isabella and Thom continue their research as they deal with hostile governments, cultural taboos, tropical diseases, storms, and being shipwrecked.
Dragon Turtle by Todd Lockwood
Spoilers: The Voyage of the Basilisk
One of the best additions to the stories is Jake Camherst, Isabella’s now 9 year-old son. He and his governess Abigail Carew join the expedition as a learning opportunity and as a counter to all those that criticized Isabella for leaving him behind when she went to Eriga. Sadly, Abigail remains a rather flat character, but Jake grows in many ways during the story. He also pushes his mother into some adventures she would have turned down without his prodding.
The other stand out addition to the story is Suhail, an archaeologist of Draconean ruins met by accident twice during the journey. His desire to learn more about the Draconeans makes Isabella more interested in them as well. Brennan has said her natural inclinations are better reflected by Suhail, rather than Isabella. He is a character with drive and interest. He also has an ability with languages that enables better communication between the Scirlings and an assortment of other peoples. Like Jake, Suhail also prods Isabella into taking actions. Actions that lead her into the middle of another battle.
The Keongan people are primarily represented by Heali’i. Who is a Ke’anaka’i and identifies Isabella as one too. These ‘Dragon Spirited’ people are recognized and respected in the culture as different. Yet not being of a related culture or transgender myself, I would hesitate to call it a positive representation. I respect Brennan for including a transgender character in a culture that creates a place for them. She could have not included the subject, but instead it becomes a plot point. This enabled more frank conversions as thought provoking as the witchcraft ceremony of book two. The Keongan people respect the Ke’anaka’i. Isabella respects them by fully acting as one. Indeed, being one opens up several opportunities otherwise forbidden to women.
The pacing is a bit uneven and will seem slow if you only want action and fighting dragons. This segment is more about the people and animal breeds met along the way. It includes more self-reflections than in past books. Yet despite these minor issues, this installment inspired me the most.
End of Book 3 Spoilers.
More adventures await for Isabella Camherst. Indeed, as of book three, she is still not Lady Trent. That story happens later in the series. Yet I hope these discussions have inspired you to pick up the series and enjoy the full story yourself.
Words of the Series:
Interlocutor – a person who takes part in a dialogue or conversation.
Much like Brandon Sanderson used “maladroitly” quite often in his Mistborn: Era 1 series, Lady Trent uses interlocutor several times per book. It stood out after the third time I heard the word, and I was finally compelled to look up the meaning.
Let us all gather in July to be interlocutors together. Until then, enjoy some tea and cake while reading more from Marie Brennan.
Ocean Wave Cake:
The sea serpents and Todd Lockwood’s stunning cover artwork fired my creativity after reading the series. Thanks to this inspiration, I decided to make fan art. My medium of expression has become cake and fondant in the last few years. At the bottom of the waves is an early style diving bell. I’m rather proud of the engineering that went into creating a twelve-inch tall leaping sea serpent over tropical waves.
Isabella may enjoy a number of coconuts while in the Broken Sea; however, it is not a flavor I enjoy. So the cake is a lemon sponge with pineapple filling, which creates a sunny look and a light citrus flavor. The ocean waves are made with Swiss meringue buttercream in 4 colors. The sea-serpent and diving bell are fondant over rice-cereal treat. Isabella is made of all fondant.
Bright lemon and pineapple flavors. Next images will contain spoilers.
Sea-serpent cake with book cover. Figure is 12″ tall. Overall cake is 23″ x 8″
Reverse side of the sea-serpent. I tried to make is square-ish, like Lockwood’s cover.
Isabella riding a sea-serpent. Whiskers made of fishing line.
Article and cake by Deana Whitney
Join her in the Workshop Track at JordanCon.
By Deana Whitney, Workshop Director
In every artform, it takes time and practice to develop skills that result in wowing others and yourself. Because let us face it, the maker can see all the flaws, while most of the appreciative audience does not. Makers, we should all try to be less hard on ourselves; let’s all spend some time having more fun and celebrating our wins this year.
To encourage this, let talk about cake decorating! In this artform I would call myself a skilled amateur, far from being a pro, but it is something I have fun doing for myself.
Making cakes pretty is a different skill than making cakes tasty. The bakers and decorators that mange to achieve both are highly skilled individuals. The internet as a whole can teach you about baking yummy cakes. (Sidenote: the extra time it takes to make Swiss meringue buttercream icing is totally worth the time.) As a skilled armature baker/decorator I have learned a few things about working with fondant if you want to add extra visual wow to your treats.
To learn to work with fondant cheaply, grab some play-doh. Or make your own salt-dough with cream of tater in the recipe. Like play-doh fresh out of the container, fondant needs to be kneaded a bit before shaping or rolling it. If you can build a shape using play-doh, you can make it in fondant, and probably easier, since fondant has a more refined texture. The main thing is to get your head and hands into thinking “I can do this!” Play like a kid again making snakes, trees, hearts, swords, crowns, or anything else you can think about.
Tools useful in working fondant.
Upper row: plastic rolling pin, toothpicks (2 styles), drageés, fondant combs, and shape cutters.
Middle row: Luster dust, icing tips, ruler, food-safe paint brush, and a small dish with vodka.
Lower row: Flower press mold with petal cutter, and cake spatula.
I’m a firm believer that amateur cake decorators don’t need to buy many fancy tools. However, I have found several more specialized items to be helpful, such as cake spatulas and a collection of small shaped cookie cutters. A smooth rolling pin will be needed, wooden rolling pins can transfer textures to the fondant and tend to stick more than plastic ones. Any paintbrush used for cake decorating should be dedicated to food use only; store it far away from regular craft paintbrushes.
When attaching two pieces of fondant together, they need a glue. Water can be used, but vodka will produce better results. No flavor or alcohol is transferred. It evaporates more quickly than water as well. This is very apparent when applying luster dust for added color. Sometimes clear gel icing is useful as glue. Note, it leaves the pieces with glossy edges if extra is on the edges, which should be seen as part of the design.
For extra tools, use what is available to you. Pizza cutters, dull knives, toothpicks, cookie cutters, forks, or even the fancy shaping tools and texture pads. Just play; let your imagination go wild making large flat panels into 3D phonebooths. You need to become comfortable kneading and rolling your materials. Realize it is more forgiving as a sculpting medium than many realize. Fondant can be reshaped many times while it is fresh. Do keep unused portions of fondant wrapped tight by plastic wrap and in an airtight container. This will help retain its flexibility longer. After opening a package of fondant, if stored correctly, it can keep its fresh flexibility for weeks. If not stored correctly, it can harden overnight.
Sometimes older fondant can be used to create smaller items after it has hardened. The best results happen if the fondant was stored in a rolled-up ball. The store-bought brands of fondant can often be returned to workable condition by microwaving it. Place a moist paper-towel next to the fondant on a dish. Heat up the fondant 10 seconds at a time, check in between rounds of heating. You want the fondant to be smashable again to knead and shape it. Older fondant can develop rough hard edges that should be cut off and thrown away. Those bits have dried out too much. If worked into the rest of the fondant, they create weak cracking points and bad textures. Older fondant needs to be worked within 10 minutes of softening it, before it hardens again. I’ve been able to re-soften older fondant twice before trashing it as too hard and brittle.
Image text: Steps to marbling fondant – snakes of color, twist together, mash and ball up, roll it out.
Marbling Fondant & Edible paper:
One of the easiest things to do with fondant is to cut out flat designs, either by using cookie cutters or by making a printed template.
For the smoothest surface texture, you will want a plastic rolling pin. Even if your rolling pin is a serialized piece of PVC pipe. For elements that will be supported, the fondant can be rolled thin (i.e. less than 2 mm). Elements that support themselves should be of thicker fondant (i.e. over 4 mm).
Extra color dimension can be added by marbling two colors of fondant together. take small amounts of each color and knead them together until the blend you want is achieved. For a quick even blend, make two snakes of color, twist them together, and start kneading or rolling. This works well with the metallic and solid color fondants to create shimmering fondant, as shown in the photo above.
Roll and blend until happy with the mix. Next, cut out the shape you want. Cookie cutters are great for this.
When you need something more irregular, find a reference image to print on paper. If you can, use software to resize the image to fit your needs. Lay the cut-out paper shape on top of the fondant, then trace with a sharp tool to cut around the shape.
After it is cut out, smooth the edges with your fingertips or a tool like tooth-picks, chop sticks, or the special cake tools. This is how the whale seen in the header image was created.
Roshar Cake with fondant gems and edible map.
Since most decorating amateurs don’t have a printer dedicated to edible ink, you will need to find a bakery or cake supply shop that can produce them. Blank edible paper is sold, as are markers with edible ink. If you feel up to the artwork, freehand a design using them to place on your cake. Me, I tend to create images using Photoshop then place an order with my local store. Note the pages are sold in standard paper sizes, so you can add multiple small images onto one sheet to save sheets and money.
When using printed edible paper design, place it on the fondant first, then add the fondant onto the cake. Cut out the design, remove the plastic backing of the paper, then lightly brush vodka on the fondant where the paper will go. This is a very light brushing of liquid. Too heavy of a hand will cause the edible paper to distort and possibly ruin your design. If you went too light with the vodka, the edge will lift up, so you can lightly brush the underside of the paper and tap it into place with a dry finger or blunt tool.
For the Roshar gem cake, I used a clear sparkle gel icing as the glue. This added an extra shine and glitter to the gems. The map shown is a large edible image placed on top of the buttercream. It adds great details to the cake with minimal effort. Often an icing border can be placed around edible images, but for these applications I did not see the need for one.
Steps to flower press molds – cut out, place, press, lift out, dry, add extra decorations if necessary.
Silicone Press Molds:
Flower and leaves press molds are specialized tools, so I’ve only bought a few when I had a design in mind that required them. Most kits come with a cutter and a two-piece mold. To make flowers using a press mold, start by rolling the fondant thin, 2 mm or less. Use the shape cutter, then press the fondant with the related mold. I find it best to mark two sides of the mold to line up the design best. Extract from mold using a toothpick or similar tool to lift it out. If the flowers keep ripping, roll the fondant a touch thicker. Transfer the flower to a support surface to let dry, empty egg carts or bunched up foil work well for this purpose. After they are dried, luster dust or dragées may be applied to add extra color.
Luster dust is applied two different ways.
Dry: Using a dry food-safe paintbrush, dip brush into the dust container. Brush it over the surface you want it to cover. Best done before the fondant has fully dried. Good for a widespread light application of color.
Wet: In a small container, mix a bit of vodka with small pinches of luster dust. Dip paintbrush into mixture. Paint the areas you want to color. If you’re not seeing the color intensity you want, add more luster dust to your wet mixture and repaint. The vodka will evaporate, leaving just the color behind.
The purple and yellow-orange flowers shown above were made using this technique.
Examples of fondant sculptures.
Besides whole fondant covered cakes, when most people think of fondant, they think of the elaborate sculpted decorations made from the edible clay. This is when many people start thinking “I can’t do that.” First, give yourself a chance to try. Play with playdoh to see if you can get close to your desired shape. Break the piece down into its simpler geometric components before worrying about the extra details, as seen in the leaf pin above. Also, try watching some YouTube videos of professionals making similar shapes. No, you won’t recreate their work first try, but their way can help guide your work. If you provide the framework, often the brain will read the intended design without elaborate additions.
To help inspire others to build 3D shapes with fondant, below breaks down the making of a few fondant decorations.
Pokemon Ball – Roll two balls of red and white, then cut them in half. Stick them to the opposite color with a dab of water or vodka on each side. Cut a thin strip of black to put around the middle. Add a small white circle to one side. The circle was cut out using the small hole from a #3 icing tip.
Details of a fondant Doomslug.
Doomslug – Make two short snakes of yellow, one should be smaller in plumpness than the other. Flatten, until both look more oval than cylinders, curve to mimic Doomslugs upright shape.
Roll blue fondant about 2 mm thin, cut an oval shape, as seen in the photo. Pinch the sides to stretch out the oval more, until it matches the shape of the yellow pieces. In the photo you can see, I needed to use a second piece of blue fondant, but it just added to the ruffles. If you have a fondant ball tool, use it to give ruffles before attaching it to the worms. Or use your fingers to pinch the sides to thin out the outer most edges and make ruffles. Attach it to the lower plumper oval portion. Cap with the upper oval worm. Let it dry a few minutes.
Spines – Roll blue fondant extra thin (1 mm). Cut into narrow strips 3-4 times longer than the slug body. Accordion fold on your working board. Bush vodka in a strip along the body’s back where you plan to place the stripe, one at a time. Place folded strip and adjust until you like the look. Repeat for the strips you want. Let dry.
Eyes were cut using a #4 icing tip. Edible marker made the smile.
Swords – For items like swords or lightsabers, wrap the fondant around a tooth pick for long-term stability and extra playability with the items. Unsupported rods of fondant are prone to breaking. Wrap the blade fondant first, then wrap the handle. If there is a cross guard do that third. Last is adding the extra details needed to suggest the exact item you are making.
Details in building a Tardis.
The Tardis – I made mine by rolling out dark blue fondant to about a6 mm thick slab. Then cut out three rectangles. Glue together with vodka. Set aside to dry. Place a square on top to cover the seams; make it slightly smaller than the overall demotions. Form a small cylinder of white, then top with a small ball on top for the light. Place in the center of the square. I recommend placing the light last, but in the photos you see I placed it early in the process.
Roll out white, blue, and black fondant extra thin, 2 mm. Use a pizza cutter or sharp knife and ruler to cut thin strips and rectangles for the windows, coffers, and signs of the police box. Cut two signs of white as 1-4 black “Police” signs.
Place the windows first. As you rotate the four sides, make sure the working space remains dry. If there is too much moister, the blue color can transfer to the white fondant.
Place the strips to build the coffers. The long vertical lines go on first, then cut the short horizontal lines to go in between the vertical ones. Place on one side at a time, giving each side 3-5 minutes to set before rotating to the next side.
The window and sign rectangles can be written on with edible ink markers or Sharpies, if you don’t plan to eat the fondant* (see disclaimer below).
The last step is to roll out the platform to a size about 2-4mm larger all around then the base of the Tardis. Glue the box to the base and leave to dry.
Details in making a golden serpent.
Serpent – Start making a thick rope of fondant. Leave one end thicker as you roll it back and forth under your hands. Work to extend the back end into a smaller point. When it’s the length needed, start shaping the head. Look at photos of the type of snake you want. I started with the mouth placement, then moved to eyes and kept refining until satisfied. Toothpicks can be very useful for sculpting if you don’t have formal tools.
Once happy with the shape of the snake, add texture by lightly pressing into the fondant with a tool. For the texture shown, I used small cookie cutters.
To get a golden look, use food color spray to deepen the color. Place on your cake with the help of a wide spatula.
That’s all there is! Go forth and play with the edible clay fondant. If you make something or have questions, please email them to: Workshop[at]jordancon.org
*Disclaimer: Homemade marshmallow fondant tastes better than every kind of premade fondant you can find. It also takes significantly longer to harden. If you are trying to create 3D shaped figures, it is better to use store bought types. Overall, I think of fondant as a type of technically edible Saran Wrap on cakes. Thus, I do not make fondant-covered cakes. I will make buttercream-covered cakes that use fondant decorations as accent pieces.
Every winter we spend a few weekends creating and testing new drink recipes to share with our friends at JordanCon. Only the best recipes accompany us to Atlanta, usually only one or two. In early 2015, however, we had a particularly long, cold winter; as a result, we ended up with a handful of new recipes to share this past year at JordanCon 7.
“Oatcakes and Cream” is another of the drinks that came out of that long winter season: a drink designed to keep you warm and content through long dark evenings when the wind is blowing down from the mountains across the ruins of old Manetheren, blustering down the Old Road, curling around doorways and under coat flaps, when the snow is thick and crunchy under your feet, the bright moon silvery and cold in the sky as a mirror, and you hear the shivery howl of a wolf out across the chill waters of the Waterwood…
…Oh, sorry! Wandered off there. Where was I? Oh yes, a wonderfully tasty variant of a White Russian that is ideal for a winter’s night. Or Winternight. We’ve heard that the oatey-creamy goodness of this drink is indeed Bela-approved. And now, here’s the recipe! Chip says you should find this one much less complicated than our last recipe.
- One part (a standard shot) of Kahlua, or other coffee-flavored liqueur of your choice
A standard shot is about 1.5 ounces of liquor.
- One part (or a standard shot) of Corsair’s “Oatrage” Whiskey
- 2 parts (3 oz. for those of you keeping score) of Half ‘n Half coffee creamer
You can use another type of coffee creamer or even milk instead if you wish. The nice thing about using coffee creamer is that it is easy to obtain in most hotels!
- Two ice cubes
- Corsair’s website says Oatrage whiskey is only available seasonally, but we’ve been able to find it most of the time here in Nashville. (Nonetheless, it never hurts to pick it up whenever you run across it, just in case.) And there may be similar oat whiskeys available elsewhere; this is just the one we favor for this drink.
Add your ingredients in order to a standard Old Fashioned glass. First add in the Kahlua, then the whiskey, then the coffee creamer. Add the ice, stir, and serve!
- What’s an Old Fashioned glass? An Old Fashioned glass, also known as a “lowball glass” or “rocks glass” is a short tumbler used for serving whisky with ice cubes (“on the rocks”). It is also normally used to serve certain cocktails, such as the Old Fashioned, from which it receives its name. Old Fashioned glasses typically have a wide brim and a thick base, so that the non-liquid ingredients of a cocktail can be mashed using a muddler before the main liquid ingredients are added. They typically contain 6-10 US fluid ounces.
Now that Winter finally seems to be making its presence known, our R&D season here at the Nine Horse Hitch is just beginning. And we still have one or two more recipes to share with you from this past year, so be watching for those soon. In the meantime, may your New Year be filled with happiness and tasty surprises.