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The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan

The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan
4.5
Book Name: The Tropic of Serpents
Author: Marie Brennan
Publisher(s): Tor Books
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Fantasy / Alternate History
Release Date: March 4, 2014

Society doesn’t look kindly on women who want to expand the world’s knowledge of dragons through scientific study, scandalous affiliations and hazardous adventures across the globe but, as we well know by now, Isabella, Lady Trent cares not a whit for society’s glances or approval.

The Tropic of Serpents is the second volume of fictional memoirs by Marie Brennan’s most wonderful creation; a female naturalist demonised in a semi-fantastical version of the 19th century for living a life outside of that expected of her.

In the first volume, A Natural History of Dragons, we were introduced to Isabella as young and old; the elder Lady Trent beginning the narration of her extraordinary life with all the benefit of hindsight. We saw Isabella’s introduction to natural history, her perilous research trip through a land seemingly based on 19th century Russia and the burdens and triumphs this journey left her with.

The second book continues where the first left off, with Isabella preparing to take a second trip to study dragons in the Erigan savannah (an analog continent of Africa). Slightly older but no more inclined to think before she speaks, Isabella finds herself the subject of disapproval before she even sets sail and is inevitably caught up in politics and societal restrictions as soon as she lands.

In a frenzy of promises and obligations, our protagonist and her friends end up in a deadly swamp nicknamed the Green Hell looking for a treasure that could change the world.

A fair amount of fantasy fiction has been set within historical contexts but Brennan manages to make this one both original and accurate – at least to an untrained eye. The world is a renamed version of ours when the British Empire had hold of most of it but instead of bearing that point of view so favoured by history, each location is given a new life through its inhabitants and strengthened by the narrator’s willingness to integrate herself into new societies.

This picture of a vast world is further built up by the artwork of Todd Lockwood who provides the sketches Isabella produces on her adventures as well as the stunning cover art. This occasional accompaniment not only reveals the dragons we study at Isabella’s side but also cements her as a character by demonstrating her skill as an artist as well as a writer and scientist.

The dragons themselves are obviously important but don’t feature as much as might be expected. This is a shame because the narrator assumes knowledge of them that her fictional readers will have developed from her scientific texts. In reality we are only given what is necessary for the plot and occasionally their biology can feel somewhat contrived for that purpose.

Despite this, the characters in The Tropic of Serpents are never a disappointment. They often pop in and out of Isabella’s vicinity and acquaintance but are no less rich for that fact. Her friends and companions, Thomas Wilker and Natalie Oscott, while limited to the narrator’s perspective of their thoughts and opinions, manage to exist outside of their necessity to assist her. They have their own life-changing struggles that tie in to Isabella’s situation but don’t depend on it. The other bit players in these stories are no different, living according to their own values and never giving in to her simply because she’s the protagonist.

It does help that Isabella herself is perceptive enough to give a rounded view of the people she has met, but even if she spent the entire book alone a reader probably wouldn’t struggle to maintain interest. Hilarious in her own blunt fashion, Lady Trent has a strong voice that dances between her older and younger self with natural progression that adds authority to the unlikely life of adventure she has formed for herself.

One problem of course – if you consider it to be one – is that the risks Isabella faces are less dramatic because we know that she survives them. However, Brennan combats this by extending the narrative with snippets of information Isabella has leaned later to add greater contextual depth that is arguably more rewarding than the blind thrill of action. Occasionally Lady Trent will refuse to give her reader any information at all about conversations or events, which is a cruel but fair way of maintaining our curiosity.

Due to the nature of the series, the character arcs in each instalment are small. For Isabella to overcome all her faults would be unsatisfying and unrealistic and it feels like, dragons aside, a certain amount of realism is what Brennan is striving for in these books.

Instead of each character’s personality developing into their hero selves in line with the plot, each participant in Isabella’s story learns a little bit from each mistake they make and, instead of permanently overcoming those mistakes, through their continuous struggles we end up knowing them a little better and acknowledging those faults as that which makes them whole.

The burden of the characters’ own mistakes comes to a climax halfway through the book, when the nomadic tribespeople hosting Isabella’s party accuse her of being the subject of witchcraft, or poisonous thoughts, from the people she has slighted.

In a moving and cathartic passage where the group discuss her every failing, Isabella realises where the conflict lies in her own life. It’s a turning point for her and emphasises the main themes of the book without the older version of Isabella having to lay it heavily at our feet.

This theme, that the lack of balance Isabella feels in her duties as a gentlewoman and mother compared to her desires to be a respected and knowledgable scientist, are played out at every level of the book. From her relationship with research assistant Thomas Wilker – who may not be a woman but understands the repressive nature of the class system – to the wider political situation and even wider war concerning the nations of her world, Isabella has uncovered a universal truth; that what we want “will always be entangled with the world we live in.”

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Rating: 9.9/10 (11 votes cast)
The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan, 9.9 out of 10 based on 11 ratings
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One Comment

  1. Bibliotropic says:

    I’m glad you mentioned the downside to high-tension scenes in first-person narratives. Sometimes I think I’m the only person who thinks that such scenes lose some of their tension when you know, simply by virtue of the viewpoint the story’s being told from, that they’ll come out okay in the end. It throws the reader right in there, but it also, weirdly, makes for a bit of distance. So yeah, glad I’m not the only one who’s thought this.

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