Sunday, January 19, 2020

Review: The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan

The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan
Published: Tor, 2013
Series: Book 2 of the Memoirs of Lady Trent
Awards Nominated: Hugo Award for Best Series

The Book:

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.”
Here continues my review of the Memoirs of Lady Trent!  I haven’t read the third book yet, but I definitely intend to finish out the series. My reading time is limited lately, so I can’t promise a when, but it will happen. Beware of allusions to a *major spoiler* from Book 1 below!
My Thoughts:
Each book in Isabella’s memoirs tells a complete story, but I would strongly advise against reading them out of order.  They occur chronologically, and I think you really need to know what the returning characters have been through. In Isabella’s case, she has now established herself in her field, and her new position affords her more social flexibility to pursue her interests than she had as a young woman or a wife.  It also gives her the freedom to take a like-minded young woman under her wing, and to give her the opportunities that Isabella didn’t have in her youth. All in all, then, while Isabella’s homeland is not less sexist in this book, the sexism is less relevant to her life. Outside of Scirland, when she is on expedition, sexism that she encounters is treated more as an annoyance than as a serious threat to her career.
The one complication of her new role in society is that she is also a mother of a very young son.  I feel like the way she engages with this responsibility is somewhat similar to what you would expect from a Victorian man whose wife died in childbirth.  She doesn’t not love her son, but she also finds his similarity to his father a source of pain rather than comfort.  There’s a lack of maternal instinct and a distance that I have rarely seen in the depiction of mother characters.  I don’t think motherhood comes naturally to everyone, so it was nice to see this in Isabella. I would say that she is not a bad mother, but the way she balances her career goals with providing for his care is definitely not the norm for women in her culture.  (As a side note, the toddler in question is in no physical danger during this part of the memoir.)
I’ve talked a lot about societal issues, so let’s get to the dragons! I don’t want to say too much, because dragon biology is one of the major sources of mystery in these books. I can say that Isabella has not learned all there is to know about all dragons from her time in Vystrana, and there are some interesting biological quirks to discover about the dragon species in Eriga.  The political machinations are a sideshow to her expedition, but they serve as one major source of tension. To get permission to enter the Green Hell, she has to make a deal that she soon realizes might not be looked kindly upon by the jungle’s inhabitants (on whom she depends for survival). Within the jungle, I enjoyed seeing Isabella’s curiosity, intelligence, and practical (but reckless) problem-solving skills come to the foreground.  I am eager to see where she will go next and what she will discover!  
My Rating: 4 /5
I liked the first book of this series, and in my opinion The Tropic of Serpents is even better. There’s still a fair amount of sexism for Isabella to deal with, but it feels like less of a major obstacle to her goals than it did in the first book.  Isabella’s difficulty with performing motherhood is another arc in the book, and I found it refreshing to read about someone to whom the role did not come naturally. On the supernatural side, the dragons remain as interesting as ever, and the Green Hell is an exciting and dangerous setting for her journey. Isabella’s curiosity and resourcefulness make her a very compelling heroine, and I’m looking forward to seeing what adventures the rest of her life will hold!

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