Book Review: The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan
Series: Book 2 of Memoir by Lady Trent
Publisher: Tor (March 4, 2014)
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
As someone who loves the natural sciences and is fascinated with the study of animal behavior, I remember being thrilled to discover the exquisiteness of Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons. I’d been skeptical when I first picked it up, though. Written in the form of a memoir by the protagonist Lady Trent, I still recall wondering to myself how interesting could this book possibly be if it’s just going to be nothing more than a fictional old lady waxing nostalgic about a life of studying and research? But hey, dragons!
Needless to say, the book took me by surprise. By the last page, I was completely in love with the character of Isabella Camherst before she became the venerable Lady Trent. The unique and convincing narrative style added so much to the story, and I could feel her passion for dragons in every single word. I practically did a dance when I found out that a second novel was in the works, called The Tropic of Serpents which would chronicle the next chapter of Isabella’s pursuit of draconic knowledge by focusing on her time in the swampy jungles of war-torn Eriga.
“I set to work making a place for myself in Society, even if it was not the place Society intended for me.” ~pg. 328
Like the first book, The Tropic of Serpents is a tale of adventure, but it also explores the role of women in a society where the world of academia is still almost exclusively male. Isabella bucks social conventions to pursue her dream of studying dragons, while dealing with criticism as well as her own guilt for putting her research ahead of her family. There is a fine balance of emotional gravity to go along with the action and adventure in these books, something I relished. The narration also has an honest quality to it that’s really grown on me, suggestive of a “bare all” attitude from someone who knows she has contributed much to the field and is too old now in any case to give a crap about what anyone might think of her. Very refreshing!
Despite their similarities, there are a lot of differences between the two novels as well. Given that they are written in the form of a memoir, the many changes that occur over the course of this book lend a great deal of realism to Isabella’s character. After all, the aspects of one’s life do not remain static over time. Accordingly, we see growth in the character in terms of her personality, but also in her relationships with her companions and even in her scientific knowledge.
Which probably makes this a good time for me to bring up that I feel these books are about more than just dragons. The story is about Isabella’s life. It’s about her love of dragons and science. It’s also about the world she lives in, including its peoples, cultures, and politics. To tell the truth, the sequel is conspicuously light when it comes to any dragon action. There’s quite a bit of set up leading to Isabella’s expedition into the jungle known as the Green Hell, and once there, the record of the time she spends among the native Moulish people made sections of this novel read more like an ethnography. Of course, I was an Anthropology major so I ate this all up, but I also have to echo the thoughts of many others and agree that the first book featured a greater emphasis on dragons, while this one dabbled more in the history and politics of the setting.
Nevertheless, I am having a lot of fun with this series. There are details hinting at so much more to come in Lady Trent’s long and accomplished life and I hope to read about all her adventures. Anyone who has a deep passion or commitment to a calling will find a kindred spirit in the main character; it’s truly wonderful to find a strong female protagonist with such powerful conviction and presence.