My rating: 4 stars
In the second instalment of The Memoirs of Lady Trent series, titled The Tropic of Serpents, Marie Brennan reveals the story of the journey of the future prominent dragon naturalist Isabella to Eriga. As in the first book, A Natural History of Dragons, an adventure is embroidered with scientific, anthropological and social strands. But it mostly stands out when the focus is on the characters’ feelings and their personal ordeals.
Although it takes place three years after the events reported in the first book (which I will not spoil in this review), it’s connected with it by mentioning how Isabella dealt with the personal consequences of her first trip to Vystrana and how the investigation following her discoveries about dragon bones was disrupted by a robbery.
Isabella’s second adventure, which is detailed in this book, took her to Eriga, but first she had to face a challenge as difficult as her expedition: her family, more precisely her mother and her concerns. Many of the criticisms she faced are related to the existence of different expectations regarding women and men’s duties towards family. I have to admit that even I was ready to criticise her (as I would have also censured a man in the same circumstances) before she explained how she was remembered of previous suffering by fulfilling her expected family duties.
“Indeed, I imposed that distance in part because of my feelings. (…) I was not always prepared to deal with the reminder of that connection. And so a part of me chose instead to flee.”
Some of the characters who were part of the expedition to Vystrana return in this book. That is the case of Lord Hilford and Mr Wilker. But there is also a new companion: Lord Hilford’s granddaughter, Natalie Oscott. She is interested in the possibility of humans being able to fly aided by a mechanism resembling dragon wings. She has an independent mind and doesn’t really want to get married. Having children is out of the question and she isn’t interested in sex either.
Mr Wilker and Natalie accompanied Isabella in her journey to the war-plagued continent of Eriga with the purpose of discovering more information about dragons. When they arrived at their destination, they were greeted by Faj Rawango, who had been sent by the Oba to invite them to stay at the palace. His hospitality had a price which is revealed later on. Without intending to, Isabella became involved in a conflict between different tribes and local populations. She was so eager to prove her value that she put herself into dangerous situations, not giving enough importance to her health and safety.
Despite all the locations being fictional, they bear resemblances to the European and African continents. Scirland, where Isabella was born, resembles a European country some centuries ago, while Eriga shares many characteristics with Africa, for example the existence of savannahs and swamps. In the different habitats, there are various species of dragons. Diverse cultures, religions, traditions and languages are also depicted in the novel, making it occasionally feel like a natural and anthropological study with the aim of conveying the value of other cultures.
Through a fantasy setting, The Tropic of Serpents also touches on quite critical social and scientific issues. Many mentions are made about the difficulties faced both by women and people from the lower classes to have their work recognised in the scientific realm. There is also space to criticise prize hunting and reminisce about killing animals with scientific purposes. It’s quite clear that Isabella believes that people wouldn’t care about the preservation of dragons if the possibility of profit was part of the equation.
“Humanity is not known for its moderation.”
My favourite moments in the novel are the ones focusing on the characters’ feelings and their personal tribulations. I saw the adventure part as a complement to that. The moment when some of the characters sat together and spoke about what was emotionally troubling them is particularly absorbing.
On the other hand, the conflict and political situation in the Eriga continent should have been explained in a more careful way, as sometimes I became lost because of those machinations. In one of the chapters the political manoeuvrings are so suddenly mentioned that I didn’t fully understand them. The various uncommon names were also a contributing factor to my confusion, as they were not easy to memorise.
In the preface, the reader is informed that this volume of Lady Trent’s memoirs will be full of gossip, nakedness, strange religions, disease and violence. But what really caught my attention was her family situation, and her plans to manage her personal life and her love for dragons.