the Little Red Reviewer

A bit more on The Tropic of Serpents. Also: role models

Posted on: April 2, 2014

I recently reviewed   Marie Brennan’s The Tropic of Serpents and concluded the review with this non-spoiler:

“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”

and promised to explain it later. Well, now it’s later.

so lemme ‘splain. No, there is too much, I’ll sum up:

When I read A Natural History of Dragons, I felt like I was looking in a mirror.  Isabella did what she wanted, and followed her ambitions, and screw it if she was the only woman in the room.  I never cared about being the only girl in the class, or on the team, or in the meeting, or in the department, and she didn’t care either. Isabella was completely aware of society’s expectations, and she noticed people noticing her. She simply never let it affect her ambitions.


In The Tropic of Serpents, she’s a little older, a little wiser. And by a little older, I mean she’s still in her early 20s. The big change in her life is that she has a child. She still wants to follow her ambitions. She doesn’t understand why people expect her dreams to be put on hold because a perfect little boy entered her life. She’s rightfully insulted when people question her life choices when they would not question it if it was a man making that same choice:

“Little Jacob was not left orphaned, as so many had direly predicted.

Did I have the right to undertake such a risk? I can only give the same answer i gave then: that I have, and had, as much right as any widower in the same situation. Few question the widower’s decision, but everyone questions the widow’s”.

This series takes place in a pre-industrial Europe-esque fantasy world. I don’t live in a fantasy world,  I’m in my 30s, and I don’t have any kids.

And yet I have experienced exactly that same scene.

Time for more about my non-bloggery life than you ever wanted to know. grab a seat, because this rambles.

I travel for my job, often about 2 weeks per month. I’m lucky enough to enjoy what I do for a living. When I get to where I’m going, a small talk conversation that often comes up when people find out I’m from out of town is “what exactly do you do?” followed by “do you enjoy it?” I answer that one honestly, that yes, I enjoy it. Before long I’ll be asked “How much do you have to travel?”, to which I respond “usually one or two weeks a month”.

(This is not an imaginary conversation. It comes up everywhere I go, and these questions are always asked, almost always in the same order, with almost always the same ending)

The person thinks about my “one or two weeks a month” for a minute. I can see the wheels moving behind their eyes. I can see them thinking what traveling two weeks per month might be like.

Once they’ve figured it out, they can’t help themselves. they have to ask me. I’m obviously in my 30s, and I’m wearing a wedding ring, so this next question really is the logical next step:

“Don’t you miss your kids?” (which is polite-talk for “how can you leave your children behind?” or “who is watching your children?” or even “what kind of mother does that? what’s wrong with you?”)

and I respond with “I don’t have any children”.

sometimes that ends the discussion. Sometimes the person has to let me know that they can’t understand how any woman wouldn’t want children, or how as soon as I have children I’ll change my mind, and I’ll be so happy. (because since women are able to have children, we must all of course, dream of nothing else, right?)

So, first, it was you travel away from your kids! you are a shitty mother! what the hell is wrong with you?. and then when I’ve gotten myself out of being a shitty mother because there are no theoretical kids for me to have abandoned, it’s omg, you don’t want kids? what the hell is wrong with you?

and would that conversation go differently if I was a man?

Yes, I know I could extricate myself from all those conversations if I simply said my personal life isn’t up for discussion, and going forward I may choose to do that. But these are co-workers and clients, it is important that I build a positive relationship with them.  I’m often on their turf, and usually happy to let them steer the small talk. Many times I’ve found the “family” discussion comes up because the person is looking for a lead in to tell me all about their kids, and show me pictures, and tell me about their kids’ gymnastics or basketball tournaments, or whatever.

And all of that blah blah blah was simply my lead in for this:

Isabella Camherst traveled for her career, and when people judged her, she didn’t let it get to her. And so can I.  actually, not “can”, but will.  Knowing that she went through the same judgmental shit I go means I am not alone. and that? that feeling not alone? means everything to me.

Sometimes people ask me why and how I throw myself at projects. I’m not addicted to projects or anything, really (really! some of these projects suck). The truth is that I do it because I read so much damn heroic fiction. I see people doing amazing things in books, so I feel like I can do amazing things too. So if one day I go chasing after dragons (or that promotion), its only because I was inspired by one of my role models, Isabella Camherst.

6 Responses to "A bit more on The Tropic of Serpents. Also: role models"

It’s funny that you write about this, today: my wife is out of town on business as I write (she’s the traveler in our family) and we’re in our 40s, with no kids.

It’s part of a larger cultural discussion of course, that involves people being comfortable getting into what are actually pretty personal topics. I can tell you that (short answer) it does happen with men, but it’s a little less judgy I think, and of course that stuff eases up in your forties (where intrusive questions are replaced by the occasional sad shake of the head – uh… folks? I happen to be absurdly happy!).

I think that I’ve always been inspired by people living a little outside the cultural paradigm, but I’ve never made the connection between that and the (very minor) ways that I do.


OMG – I would never ask anyone such personal questions. Firstly it’s just rude and secondly, what if it’s an awkward situation!!! And, thirdly, it’s none of their goddamn business. I suppose I’ve followed a fairly traditional route – but, to be honest, it doesn’t matter what you do because people will still find a reason to judge you. For me it’s the fact that I work. ‘You work?, And you have children???’ – which then opens up an whole other can of worms ‘how can you bear to leave them’?, ‘Who looks after them?, etc etc. So, yeah, bad mum of the year award (although my children don’t think like that – which is thankfully what really matters). I’m good at awards – I’m also worst daughter and baddest ever sister! Pah, life’s too short to worry about such things especially as most of it is just in my tiny brain. 😀 *picks up next book*


my Mom worked when I was a kid. taught me to be independent. teaches your kids the same thing. it’s good for ’em!


‘The truth is that I do it because I read so much damn heroic fiction.’ I tend to reread LOTR or some epic fantasy when I am stressed about life or have something big on my plate, because the hero narrative is so powerful.


I totally agree with Lynn, it’s rude to be so intrusive in another person’s life.
I’m in my mid-thirties, married, and am quite clear that I don’t want children. I’ve been lucky, very few people have ever commented further on that. To be honest if they did I’m not sure how I’d respond.


Somehow I seem to run into all the traditionally minded people IRL.


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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