Updated on May 27, 2017
61. ‘The Tropic of Serpents’ by Marie Brennan
I have raved a lot about the first book in Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent series, A Natural History of Dragons, and today I’m going to rave about the second one, The Tropic of Serpents.
When we rejoin Lady Trent’s memoirs, our heroine is slightly older and slightly wiser but no less headstrong and intrepid. She is about to travel to the tropical climes of Eriga (a sort of fantasy version of Africa), where she will study savannah dragons and Moulish swamp wyrms – especially the latter, when she and her team set off to explore the dangerous swamplands known as the ‘Green Hell’.
Once again, this book combines adventure and politics with a completely fantastic female lead and hugely satisfying dollops of badassery. I read a blog post by Dirty Sci-Fi Buddha just this morning which really sums this up: “In writing, it’s not so much about making everything believable, but making it so damn cool that people WANT to believe.” A world populated by dragons might not be hugely believable (although Brennan’s anthropological and folklore background does make the science in this book pretty damn convincing), but the story features so many ‘Oh my god, this is cool’ moments that you just totally buy into it because it’s so much fun.
Another thing that really sets this series apart for me is the feminism. Lady Isabella Trent lives in a Victorian-esque society and her foreign adventures certainly do not befit the behaviour of a lady. In this book Isabella becomes a patron for Natalie, a young woman who runs away from her family because they want to marry her off, and takes her along to Eriga for the ride. Isabella also has to face criticism for leaving her young son behind to go on this expedition, criticism a man and father would probably not have to face. Plus, Tropic of Serpents talks about something which is mentioned very rarely in novels: periods. Isabella menstruates, and this can get complicated when travelling, especially in the more conservative Erigan society that shuts women up in an agban for the duration of their periods. Bravo to Brennan for not shying away from this one.
There were just one or two tiny things that didn’t quite work for me. As with Natural History, the political machinations and schemes can get a little complex and there are a lot of characters involved, so you do have to concentrate quite hard to follow it at times. Also, I loved that in the first book the illustrations are mentioned in the text – we see Isabella drawing them – but in this book the illustrations matched less closely with the text, so they felt less personal to Isabella. But really these criticisms hardly matter in the midst of what is a rip-roaring adventure, led by a protagonist who is daring, complicated and able to admit her own flaws. I don’t think the conceit of Isabella’s narrative voice commenting upon the actions of her younger self will ever stop being brilliant.
Tropic of Serpents is a really solid sequel to an excellent first book. I am so happy to have found this series!
“I do not wish that I were a man. I only wish that being a woman did not limit me so.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Read my review of the next book in the series, The Voyage of the Basilisk.
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.