The Tropic of Serpents, by Marie Brennan

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Publication date – March 4, 2014

Summary: Attentive readers of Lady Trent’s earlier memoir, A Natural History of Dragons, are already familiar with how a bookish and determined young woman named Isabella first set out on the historic course that would one day lead her to becoming the world’s premier dragon naturalist. Now, in this remarkably candid second volume, Lady Trent looks back at the next stage of her illustrious (and occasionally scandalous) career.

Three years after her fateful journeys through the forbidding mountains of Vystrana, Mrs. Camherst defies family and convention to embark on an expedition to the war-torn continent of Eriga, home of such exotic draconian species as the grass-dwelling snakes of the savannah, arboreal tree snakes, and, most elusive of all, the legendary swamp-wyrms of the tropics.

The expedition is not an easy one. Accompanied by both an old associate and a runaway heiress, Isabella must brave oppressive heat, merciless fevers, palace intrigues, gossip, and other hazards in order to satisfy her boundless fascination with all things draconian, even if it means venturing deep into the forbidden jungle known as the Green Hell . . . where her courage, resourcefulness, and scientific curiosity will be tested as never before.

Thoughts: Previously, I was enamoured with the first book in this series, A Natural History of Dragons, which caught my attention for taking place in a world like ours (albeit ours about 100 years back, and with dragons), and for being the fictional memoir of a woman who disliked the role that society had decided for her based on her gender and decided instead she’d be an adventurer-scientist and make a proper study of dragons instead of just sitting there and being a good pretty housewife. Isabella was a wonderful narrator, and I went into The Tropic of Serpents expecting more of the same. I clearly was not disappointed.

Readers of the previous novel will understand why her husband is no longer around, so I won’t go into details of how sad that sill makes me, because I really enjoyed seeing them as a wonderful pair of partners, not just in marriage but also in science. Here, Isabella has a young son whom she’s not quite sure what to do with, a friend and protegé who accompanies her on her journey to the strange new lands of Eriga, and, as before, still must deal with social gender norms, albeit slightly different ones than she’s used to as she encounters unfamiliar cultures and comes to a greater understanding of them.

You can’t read this book without a sense of wonder, the kind that accompanies great stories of adventure and exploration and discovery, and there’s enough of the familiar in this series to make readers feel as though they could be reading a memoir from our own history. Which is exactly its point; it’s written as though it’s a real memoir, complete with commentary on various issues, first-person viewpoint, and Isabella’s lack of immunity from her own criticism. Exactly as one tends to do when they’re writing about an event in hindsight. Brennan also pulls more inspiration from the primary world to build her secondary world, drawing up cultures and societies analogous to ones that exist here, adding another layer of realism to an already beautifully designed story.

Unlike A Natural History of Dragons, however, The Tropic of Serpents is less concerned with the dragons themselves and spends more time detailing the lives of the people Isabella encounters, especially the Moulish, whom she spends a great deal of time with as she hunts down the dragons that were her primary reason for going on the expedition in the first place. Most of the knowledge she gains about dragons happens in the final few chapters of the book, and the rest is entirely about the reasons for her hunt, and the people she meets. Which is no bad thing, and given that this book provides and expansion of the world and takes place mostly in locations she’s never been in before and is presented as mysterious and foreign, it’s understandable why so much time would be devoted to that. As an anthropology geek, I ate it up, and adored every bit of the cultural exploration. Those looking for more information on dragons, however, may have found themselves a bit disappointed.

I’m not sure I could love this series more. Taking a scientific approach to fantastical concepts is something that has appealed to me for a long time, and Brennan does this with the ultimate fantasy trope of dragons. How they’re built, how they live, what they do, it’s all in here. And despite this book having more of an emphasis on the people than the dragons themselves, there is an ultimate reason for that; the lives of the Moulish are inextricably intertwined with that of the swamp-wyrms. You can’t tell the story of one without telling the story of the other. Dragons in Brennan’s world may not be commonplace as such but they are everywhere, a presence in every corner of the world. Studying them is like studying, say, birds; it’s not enough for some people to know that they can fly, but they want to know how they fly, how their bodies allow it when our bodies don’t, whether flightless birds are still technically birds, all the questions that scientists and explorers in this world have asked about any number of things over the course of history. Applying real scientific laws to such things instead of just handwaving it all by saying, “It’s magic,” or, “It’s fantasy so it doesn’t have to follow rules” allows for the creation of not just a richly complex real world but also shows that there’s plenty of room for rational thought within fantasy, something which I’ve heard is the biggest perceived detriment to a highly creative genre.

Fans of A Natural History of Dragons will likely still love this book as much as they did the first one. And those who haven’t yet started reading Brennan’s fantastic novels really ought to do so. They’re intelligent, creative, and a powerful deconstruction of so many things we take for granted even here and now, making them well worth paying attention to in more ways than just the obvious good storytelling. I know there’s going to be at least one more book in the series, and I, for one, can’t wait to dive back into the world and see what Isabella discovers next!

3 comments on “The Tropic of Serpents, by Marie Brennan

    • Yes! These are rare examples of books where I end up paying a lot of attention to the art. Normally I don’t bother, but it’s hard not to appreciate it here.

  1. Pingback: November in Retrospect | Bibliotropic

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