Throwback Thursday: The Tropic of Serpents

Book cover: The Tropic of Serpents - Marie Brennan (an illustration of a dragon)Neither widowhood nor motherhood can distract Isabella Camherst from her dragons, but the politics of nations – and of the scientific fraternity – have delayed her expedition to Eriga. But nothing could prepare her for the Yembe court politics that greet her arrival. Will she ever get to study the Moulish swamp wyrms?

The Tropic of Serpents introduces an Isabella both older and (at least marginally) wiser – the hard lessons of the past few years have not tamed her youthful exuberance, but have matured her outlook. She has settled into studying the secrets of preserving dragon bone and is quietly financing research into synthesising it in hope of heading off a dragon bone gold rush that would wipe her beloved creatures out.

We’re told up front that this Memoir covers the period that saw Isabella slandered and branded a traitor, and it’s clear from the start that Society’s disapproval of her unorthodox life choices will provide fertile ground for a character assassination. After all, Isabella is no conventional widow; and what woman would abandon her young son to go gallivanting about abroad to study dragons? This one, clearly.

She has also befriended the Earl’s grand-daughter Natalie Oscott – a young woman as unusual and stubborn as Isabella herself – who is intrigued by the mechanics of flight and determined to avoid marriage (much to her father’s disgust – and naturally this must be Isabella’s fault). Needless to say, I adored Natalie.

While the opening chapters are endearing, I was (as usual) nervous about a mock-British pseudo-history that was heading to almost-Africa. The politics on arrival are familiar: the Scirlanders are supporting the local ruler in exchange for lucrative trade deals. But Isabella at least has matured since her Vystrani escapade: she takes the time to observe the locals, learning the differences that distinguish different tribes and being respectful of their customs (even those like the monthly seclusion that interrupt her research), which means we get a wealth of world-building. So far, so good.

There’s a glimpse into the power structures of the segregated court and the vibrant characters (primarily women) who Isabella interacts with. Her deepening friendships with the oba’s sister Galinke and with both Natalie and erstwhile rival Thomas Wilker – Tom! – had me cheering with glee (I’m not quite shipping, but I adore these developing relationships), although for my money M. Velloin was under-used – a convenient but ultimately cardboard antagonist.

When Isabella finally (SPOILER ALERT, but seriously) makes it to Mouleen, her struggle to adapt to – and stoutly defend – the local customs is admirable (and often comical). Her teenage sneering from Vystrana is long behind her. Crucially, whenever there’s a whiff of cultural imperialism from the local Scirland dignitaries, they’re portrayed as wrong-headed about everything.

However, I do have an increasing source of frustration: the more we see of this supposedly secondary world, the more it looks like our own. Yes, it amused me that Isabella gained a reputation for over-indulging in gin after learning to like it whilst in Eriga, but if this is to be accepted as a secondary world – if I’m not simply to read Africa instead of Eriga, Britain for Scirland, Europe for Anthiope and so on – then I’d like to see more differences than similarities.

Even the dragons are few and far between in this second outing; the Moulish swamp wyrms are glimpsed only briefly near the end, with politics taking centre stage and dominating Isabella’s research. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy The Tropic of Serpents – I did, immensely, not least for the immersion into Moulish ways (peppered with fabulous scenes such as the soul-baring ritual to remove Isabella’s ‘curse’) – but I’d rather this were either an entirely secondary world with mere hints of Victoriana, or simply our own world with dragons (a la Temeraire). The halfway house leaves me more discombobulated as time goes on, however much I adore Lady Trent’s narration.

Nonetheless – Tropic remains a highly entertaining read, and I look forward to continuing with The Voyage of the Basilisk. This series has cemented its position as a casual diversion that hits the right notes and that I’ll cheerfully recommend to anyone.