In my review of Marie Brennan’s A Natural History of Dragons, I wrote that Brenan had me immediately with Lady Trent’s “wry, rebellious, sardonic voice,” but that the novel lost its edge about 100 pages in and never quite fully recovered, leaving me somewhat dissatisfied. I’m happy to say that the sequel, The Tropic of Serpents, kept that wonderfully beguiling voice, but managed to smooth out the problems with pacing, managing a follow-up that improves upon its predecessor.
As in book one, Lady Trent must overcome Victorian (literally, the novels are set in a Victorian world, with Scirling standing in for England) mores in order to embark on a journey of discovery into a foreign and most likely dangerous land. Society’s feathers are even more ruffled this time around, as [Spoiler alert for those who have not read book one: highlight the following text if you want to read it] Lady Trent is a widow now, and a mother, meaning she is an unattached female traveling with unattached male companions (heavens!) and a mother abandoning her child (horrors!). Both of these complications play out throughout the entire novel, not simply at the beginning as she tries to arrange the trip, and the latter one especially adds a nice bit of emotional heft, if it is perhaps a little overplayed in spots. And in full “in for a penny, in for a pound” mode, Lady Trent is joined by her equally rebellious younger friend, Natalie, who defies her parents (though not her more sympathetic grandfather, Lord Hildford, who is sponsoring the trip) to accompany her role model.
In relatively short order Lady Trent, her young companion Natalie, and Lord Hilford’s agent, Thomas Wilker (those who read the first book will recall him from there) arrive in the tropical continent of Eriga to study a range of dragon species. Here, Lady Trent is just as disruptive to political events as she was to society back home. Bayembe, their destination country who has an unequal “partnership” with Trent’s Scirland, is threatened by its acquisitive neighbor Ikwunde. A third region, the jungle of Mouleen (fondly known as “The Green Hell” by non-inhabitants) acts as a buffer between the two along part of their border, and it is here that Trent hopes to study more dragons beyond those in Bayembe.
The Tropic of Serpents is bit of a mishmash: part political thriller, part action adventure, part anthropological-sociological study, part travelogue, and part memoir, with some decent sized chunks of cultural and environmental criticism tossed in for good measure. While we’re set in a fantasy world Brenan does a nice job in the details of grounding the novel in a vivid sense of reality, whether it be via describing the landscape of the grasslands or swamp or discussing the particular problems of female explorers with regard to issue of motherhood or menstruation. The latter is held up as a unique issue, while the former is presented as one that is often considered unique, but is in actuality a double-standard (why does nobody ever complain about those men leaving their children behind?). I liked getting this other side of things, especially getting it via that great narrative voice.
And, as mentioned above, that voice is the most winning aspect of the novel. I can’t say the plot is particularly compelling. Sometimes I found myself not especially interested in the actual plot; sometimes it seemed a bit of a jumble or rush. But really, I just didn’t care about how I was responding to the plot and only noticed these things in passing, sort of with a shrug and an “oh well” before diving back in. I read Tropic of Serpents straight through and all due to that voice, which seems to me to have only sharpened since the first book. I also appreciated that Brenan did not offer up this already-popular character in static fashion, but allowed her room for growth as the book continues. In, for instance, how she becomes aware that the relationship between her homeland of Scirling and its tropical “partner” isn’t exactly as balanced as she’d simply assumed. Or in how she becomes aware of the web of relationships she has become enmeshed in and how this might mean some changes within herself are necessary to accommodate that web.
Brenan’s prose is consistently clear, precise, vivid as needed and concise as needed. Despite reading it in a single sitting, I wouldn’t call the experience a headlong rush of page turning, as might have occurred had the plot been more important or compelling. Instead, I’d call The Tropic of Serpents a lovely, leisurely late afternoon stroll with a good friend, where the conversation is such a pleasure that before you know it you’ve already almost circled back to your starting point and somehow enough time has passed that the sun is about to set. I look forward to starting out again with Lady Trent.
Have you ever read an H. Rider Haggard jungle adventure novel and thought, “I really wish the author was more culturally sensitive,” or, “It would be nice to see female characters who do things other than swoon and swan,” or even just, “Hey, there should be dragons in this!” Then, my friend, The Tropic of Serpents is for you. There’s adventure, excitement, fascinating new cultures, political intrigue, multiple characters of interest, and almost enough dragons to satisfy my Draconean heart. (Almost.) I enjoy Haggard’s work, problematic though it may be, but Marie Brennan has taken everything I like about Haggard’s tropes and improved them in a thoughtful and satisfying way.