Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Fantasy of Manners
Publisher: Tor Books on March 4, 2014
Audio: Kate Reading for MacMillan Audio
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.
Natural historian and intrepid explorer Lady Isabella Trent is back at it in THE TROPIC OF SERPENTS, this time travelling to a tropical climate in pursuit of dragons.
This series is written as though it were a memoir of Lady Trent’s life. One thing that I really like about the memoir conceit in this series is the way that Marie Brennan is able to control various reveals. Since Isabella is writing her memoirs decades after the events she’s describing took place, she’s able to foreshadow events – and even drop some tantalizing tidbits about how things work out for her later in life.
A critique that I levelled at the first book in the series was how little of Isabella’s personal life was explored, which was especially odd since her search for a romantic partner is so prominent in the book. But THE TROPIC OF SERPENTS delves much more deeply into the natural historians’ personal life, and we are treated to information about her friendships, her family, and her romantic partnerships both past and future.
But all you adventure lovers out there fear not! Isabella is still very much absorbed with her work and determined to learn whatever she can about dragons. And learn she does! Accompanied by her colleague John Wilkers and her friend – and brilliant engineer – Natalie, Isabella travels to the country of Eriga where the group will traverse the infamous jungle called the Green Hell in search of the legendary swamp-wyrm dragons. I absolutely adored learning about the cultures in Eriga; Marie Brennan did a fantastic job portraying the complex politics of the nation, especially the tension surrounding the presence of colonial troops from Vystrana, Isabella’s homeland. In my opinion, historical fantasy novels are only as good as the political and historical realities they engage with. So with that in mind I was very pleased to see Isabella remark upon these issues, and also note how disruptive the colonial presence was for Erigans and their land.
Isabella’s character growth from the first novel is evident here, as she was unsympathetic to cultural differences and nuances in that book whereas here she embraces them. She knows that the Erigan people do not require a “civilizing” hand nor do they need white saviours; Isabella also respects native Erigans when they tell her that while she’s a friend, she’s not one of them and never will be. She can offer assistance if they ask for it, but the people of Eriga can handle themselves. Three cheers for complex racial and cultural dynamics in genre fiction!
Those of you who felt that there were too few dragons in the first book may be disappointed in that aspect of THE TROPIC OF SERPENTS, because this book is certainly more concerned with people than with dragons. That being said, we do see more dragons ‘on page’ this go around…and there are even a few close calls for our group of scientists. Turns out that Moulish swamp-wyrms don’t take kindly to being disturbed!
A word on format: I’ve been having really good luck with audiobooks lately and THE TROPIC OF SERPENTS is no exception. Kate Reading delivers this book with a matter-of-fact tone that perfectly mimics the way I pictured Lady Trent speaking; she brooks no argument and doesn’t take kindly to patronizing men, which Reading makes stunningly clear with only a small shift in tone. Reading’s accents are also spot-on, which helped me distinguish between the various Erigan characters when they were speaking. I highly recommend listening to this series on audio, just so long as you don’t mind missing out on the beauty of the physical books. Todd Lockwood’s cover art for this series is just gorgeous!
THE TROPIC OF SERPENTS was, in my opinion, leaps and bounds better than the first novel in the Lady Trent series. I finally understand all the hype around these books, and I am officially on board with it!