Last year’s A Natural History of Dragons by Marie Brennan was a pleasant surprise for me: the first volume of the fictional memoirs of Isabella, Lady Trent, who some thought to be a mere “ink-nosed girl” at the time of writing but who grew into a formidable presence and the world’s preeminent authority on dragons. (My full review of A Natural History of Dragons can be be found here.)
Tor recently released The Tropic of Serpents, which is the second part of Lady Trent’s memoirs. A direct continuation of the first novel, this sequel describes the fall-out from Isabella’s first adventure in the mountains of Vystrana, as well as her next adventure on the continent of Eriga.
One major change to Isabella’s life is that she now has a young son, Jacob, but it soon becomes clear that she isn’t exactly filled with maternal instincts. Early on in The Tropic of Serpents, she muses that “little Jacob made less sense to me than a dragon”, and as the opening chapters of the novel progress, it becomes clear that Isabella sees herself as a scientist first and a mother second.
Case in point: when a new opportunity to see live dragons presents itself, she does everything she can to make the mission a reality. Reading how she deals with the vague sense of guilt at leaving her son behind is a wonderful example of one of these novels’ main strengths: describing the thoughts and feelings of people who don’t exactly fit into the mold of Regency society. The friction between their desires and what is expected of them adds a great amount of depth to these stories, as does the fact that Marie Brennan makes Isabella explain this friction in the format of a Jane Austen-style novel of manners. Or, as Isabella writes:
I had formed the resolution to live my own life as my inclinations demanded, and furthermore to do so with such zeal that society could not refuse me.
Another example of this is Natalie, the young woman who shares Lady Trent’s fascination with natural history. Natalie joins the new dragon expedition against her father’s wishes and becomes Lady Trent’s companion. What’s really interesting is that Natalie seems to self-identify as asexual, despite not really being aware of the term as such, making her another example of a powerful character forging a brand new path.
As for the journey itself, this time Isabella and company visit the continent of Eriga, which is this fantasy world’s rough equivalent of Africa. Marie Brennan places her characters in the middle of an area that’s suffering all the scourges of colonization bestowed on Africa by Europe. In this arena, which is at once recognizable and fantastical, Lady Trent avidly pursues knowledge about dragons, putting herself and her companions in dangerous situations.
Sounds familiar? The only complaint I really have is that The Tropic of Serpents is so similar to the first book. The main characters don’t change much. The plot follows a similar structure. The setting is different, but the general structure is the same. This is a good book, but I would have liked to see more evolution from one book to the next.
Still, as it is, I very much enjoyed reading The Tropic of Serpents. Lady Trent is a fascinating character—see also the author’s recent guest post on this site—and for my money, Natalie is just as interesting. Marie Brennan’s execution of the faux memoir format is once again flawless. The Memoirs of Lady Trent are a pleasure to read, and I eagerly look forward to the next installment in the series.