The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan
Posted March 28, 2014on:
published March 4, 2014
where I got: received review copy from the publisher (Thanks Tor!)
This is the second book in Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent series. As such, there may be some plot spoilers for the first book in the series, A Natural History of Dragons, which I reviewed here. This is a case where you shouldn’t worry about plot spoilers, because while the plot of the first book is engaging and compelling, it’s nothing compared to the glorious characterization and detailed worldbuilding.
In her first adventure, I imagine the younger Isabella thought she was being so adventurous, so very daring, so avante-garde (see how I talk about her like sh’’s a real person?). She had no idea how safe she was playing it. She was traveling with her husband on an expedition where everyone assumed she was the dutiful wife who simply had a hobby of drawing. Their assumptions were quickly proven patently false, but it was those exactly assumptions that protected Isabella from the cruelties of her peers.
It’s been three years since Isabella Camherst’s trip to Vystrana. Not yet Lady Trent, she is but a widow with a young son. With few friends, yet class and money on her side, she’s able to continue funding research into the preservation of dragonbone. In this pre-industrial world, there is some sly foreshadowing that preserved dragonbone would make the ultimate material for aeroplanes and other flying machines. With her patron’s granddaughter Natalie at her side, Isabella is nearly as happy as can be.
But she’d be much happier if she could study dragons up close. For the most part, the dragons won’t come to her, so she’s got to go to them. With Lord Hilford’s blessing and funding, a new expedition to the tropical jungles of Eriga is planned. It’s so helpful that there’s a Scirling fort at the bay, so Isabella and her fellows will have at least some compatriots to speak their own language with. But this is far more military force that could possibly be needed to protect some trade goods. Brennan not so subtly embroils Isabella in the politics of the Scirling colonial intrusion into Eriga. She thinks that her Naturalist and Scholar status insulates her from the politics.
The unavoidable politics reminded a bit of the book The English Patient. (actually, I recommend the movie. The book is too painful to read more than once). Almasy thinks he’s protected from the politics of his world because he’s not involved directly in what’s happening. None of us are protected from politics, no matter our allegiances, our labels, or our status, and it’s foolish to believe otherwise.
And what about Isabella’s young son Jacob? He’s far too young to come with her, but she doesn’t think she should swap out her dreams and ambitions because a perfect little boy came into her life. She arranges for young Jacob to live with his aunt and uncle while she’s gone. This time there are no patronizing or well meaning assumptions to protect her, nothing to protect her from the accusations that she’s an unfit mother who should be locked up, because of course there’s no other reason than insanity that make a woman leave her child behind, right?
Convictions and ambitions firmly in hand, Isabella kisses her son goodbye, tells him she loves him very much, and she walks away from him. She struggles with motherhood, with loving her son, yet not being a maternal person. Just because women have children doesn’t mean we are progammed to be mothers. Props to Brennan for so honestly portraying Isabella in this unflattering but authentic light.
The small party of Isabella, Natalie, and Mr. Wilker eventually arrive safe and sound in Eriga. The well read reader will recognize bits and pieces of cultures and interactions and peoples, and pick up on the parallels and the adroitly touched on themes of colonialism and imperialism, which serve to provide yet more depth and scope to the world Isabella inhabits. And it’s hilarious when Natalie is a smidgen scandalized that the Erigans walk around practically naked. What, she expects men in the a tropical jungle to wear morning jackets and cravats?
Gentleman readers beware: I know you are manly men, and thus are happy to read books with lady protagonists. But while spending some time in the palace of a local Oba, Isabelle spares no details, especially that of “seclusion”. Menstruating women are kept away from everyone else in the palace, they are secluded during their time of uncleanliness. I imagine there are a few male readers right now saying “more than I even needed to know, thanks”, and more than a few lady readers saying “only a sexist male pig would come up with something as awful as seclusion!”, and those ladies would be echoing Isabella’s thoughts on the matter. to keep from insulting the hospitality of the Oba, she agrees to be secluded. And once she experiences seclusion, she realizes it’s not at all the barbaric practice she’s assumed.
The Oba grants her permission to enter the Green Hell. In return, she will bring him dragon eggs from the swamp. Perhaps the swamp dwellers, the Moulish, will help her, perhaps they’ll let her die of fever. If she dies, the Oba will be rid of this annoying woman, and if she lives, he’ll get some dragon eggs out of the deal. A win-win for him, right?
She’s living her dream, studying creatures no one else has ever documented before. She’s in a swamp where there is disease and danger around every corner, clothes rot off your body and insects are on the menu and she’s in heaven. The swamp tribes are too incredible for me to even talk about, other than to say that I adore them and Isabella’s interactions with them. But something is eating at Isabella. Unlike the Moulish, she doesn’t believe in evil spirits, but still, something is distracting her, pulling her away from her ambition. She’s a scientist. What a villager sees as an evil spirit, leave it to Isabella to find a scientific explanation for.
And that’s how her little expedition to study some swamp-wryms suddenly becomes about much, much more than collecting a few bones and making some drawings. She can’t escape the political situation, she can’t escape who she is, and when she does eventually return home, she won’t be able to escape a responsibility to find some kind of work balance. All these expeditions she goes on. Is she running to something? or running away from something?
This is written as a memoir. It feels like an intimate conversation. I close my eyes, and I see an older Lady Trent sitting across from me, sipping her tea. I can see the young woman under the crow’s feet, I can see the blush of young love in those cheekbones and the glimmer in her eye when she speaks of Jacob. With her words and her winks, and her body language, she’s telling me trusts me. But this is an illusion. Lady Trent is not meeting me for tea, she is not sitting across from me, she is not winking when she mentions handsome gentlemen. What I’m seeing is Marie Brennan’s unparallelled skill at storytelling and characterization.
Brennan has revealed that this series will be five books long, and that the first four books lead up to some Really Big Important Discovery. I’m sure it’ll be wonderful, whatever it is. But in a way, I couldn’t care less about the big dragon discovery. I’ve already gotten what to me is the most important discovery – that thanks to Isabella, Lady Trent, I’ve discovered I’m not alone*.
*what? that’s a whole ‘nother blog post. stay tuned.