“There are so many creatures around the world that seem partially draconic in nature, but they lack wings, or forelimbs, or extraordinary breath. I think sometimes that Sir Richard Edgeworth’s criteria may be wrong - or rather, too strict.”
“Another thing to study,” Natalie said, amused. “Will you ever be done?”
I smiled into the sun, one hand holding my bonnet against the firm grasp of the wind. “I should hope not. How dreadfully tedious that would be.”
The widowed Lady Isabella Camherst is at it once again in Marie Brennan’s The Tropic of Serpents, the fictional memoir follow-up to last year’s A Natural History of Dragons. Defying societal expectation by embarking on a grand adventure to observe and record dragons, the intrepid Mrs. Camherst heads to the shores of the tropical continent of Eriga with her companions—eligible young heiress Natalie Oscott and the low-born Mr. Tom Wilker—in tow. Together, Isabella, Natalie and Tom aim to study the dragons of Bayembe’s deadly Mouleen swamplands, particularly the fabled swamp-wyrm dragons of the so-called Green Hell (that is, the most overgrown and intense swamplands of an already swampish country). Unfortunately for Isabella and her crew, their journey is fraught with tensions of the societal and political variety. Young Natalie faces pressures from her family to marry (a responsibility from which she runs far away—literally, she runs to another continent), and both Tom Wilker and Isabella are the subjects of all kinds of scandalous rumors. Worse, upon their arrival in Nsebu , the trio draws the attention of the country’s king and his desire to put an end to the war that plagues his land—and what better weapon than a dragon?
The second book in a planned series from Marie Brennan, The Tropic of Serpents is an interesting beast. As one would expect, it builds upon the characters and storylines from A Natural History of Dragons; the parts that are particularly interesting, however, are the changes observed in Lady Isabella’s attitudes and person, and with respect to dragons. While I enjoyed A Natural History of Dragons, one of my main issues with the book concerned Lady Isabella’s imperialist and dismissive attitudes toward other cultures and the dragons she supposedly so admires (she’s part of a hunt that kills a dragon so that…she can draw its dead body). In book 2, her attitudes toward hunting are expressed explicitly in the text—Isabella scolds and disdains another character who hunts great elephants, lions and dragons for the glory of the hunt and to proudly display their carcasses (not for science). When her hypocrisy is called out, Isabella defends her position convincingly (at least, more convincingly than in the prior book)—her desire to find a way to synthesize dragon bone substitutes is a smart and believable goal.
More than just in her attitude toward her beloved dragons; in this second novel, Lady Isabella grows as a person and starts to consider the lives of those around her. She’s a mother now, but deeply resents societal expectation that dictates she should stay home and raise her son instead of irresponsibly traipsing around the globe on her own selfish quest for glory and knowledge. At the same time, she feels incredibly guilty about this same fact and her desire to leave young Jacob behind. And, while Isabella faces the pressures of society, so too does her young protégé, Natalie. As a young heiress of marriageable age, Natalie is pressured by her family to join in the season and secure a husband, instead of ruining her reputation with an eccentric, mostly-shunned widow. Natalie’s solution (running away to another country) certainly doesn’t help matters, but helps readers see the lengths to which she’ll go to escape the constraints of Scirlandian society. Finally on the character front, we are also entreated to a more charitable view of Tom Wilker and his begrudging friendship with Lady Isabella—no romance, thank goodness, but an understanding between scholars and colleagues.
Beyond characters, The Tropic of Serpents addresses a second problem I had with A Natural History of Dragons—namely, the lack of actual dragons. In book 2, I was very pleased to see a greater variety of and interaction with dragons of the humid marshes of a new continent, including tree snakes and swamp-wyrms. They are glorious beasts, and thankfully remain un-anthropomorphized; I also love the fact that each dragon species is examined in some depth, from their physiology to their behavioral patterns.
On the negative side, unfortunately, The Tropic of Serpents persists in its tendency towards stereotypical portrayal of non-Scirlandian (read: non British/Western European) peoples. The native people of Eriga are painted as a simple and superstitious lot—for instance the swamplander Mouleen blaming “witchcraft” on Isabella’s run of ill fortune (including a purification ceremony). While there are greater political moves and intricacies shown with regard to the oba (king) and his plans to end his reliance on external countries to fund his war, the politics are fairly simplistic and underdeveloped in this book. Like some of the other plotting elements (e.g. the robbery at the beginning of the book!), political threads are unresolved and fall away into insignificance.
Still, these are but minor quibbles in what is an otherwise very strong middle volume. I thoroughly enjoyed being immersed in Lady Isabella’s sparkling narrative once again, and can only expect more growth in her person as the series continues.
In Book Smugglerish, a pleased 7 dragonbone gliders out of 10.