The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan – Review

The Tropic of Serpents

Book Jacket:

Attentive readers of Lady Trent’s earlier memoir, A Natural History of Dragons, are already familiar with how a bookish and determined young woman named Isabella first set out on the historic course that would one day lead her to becoming the world’s premier dragon naturalist. Now, in this remarkably candid second volume, Lady Trent looks back at the next stage of her illustrious (and occasionally scandalous) career.

Three years after her fateful journeys through the forbidding mountains of Vystrana, Mrs. Camherst defies family and convention to embark on an expedition to the war-torn continent of Eriga, home of such exotic draconian species as the grass-dwelling snakes of the savannah, arboreal tree snakes, and, most elusive of all, the legendary swamp-wyrms of the tropics.

The expedition is not an easy one. Accompanied by both an old associate and a runaway heiress, Isabella must brave oppressive heat, merciless fevers, palace intrigues, gossip, and other hazards in order to satisfy her boundless fascination with all things draconian, even if it means venturing deep into the forbidden jungle known as the Green Hell…where her courage, resourcefulness, and scientific curiosity will be tested as never before.

You can read an excerpt here.

Review:

Sad to say, I did not enjoy this Lady Trent adventure as much as I did the first.

And I think the reason why all comes down to the narrative style, and the air of almost clinical detachment it exudes. Now to be fair, the first book displayed some hints of this – the dry tone and studious air at times gave the narration a remote feel, but it was leavened by the relationships between Isabella, her new husband, and the rest of their research group, and by Isabella’s struggle to prove herself, and so the personal side of the story did balance out the rest. But unfortunately, that was not the case this time around – here, the studious detachment swallows this book whole, such that I felt like the story was holding me at arm’s length from any possible emotional attachment. This book tells, instead of shows – dictates, instead of letting us experience the adventure alongside Isabella – and frankly, despite my general interest in the larger brush strokes of the affair, it massively decreased my engagement with this story, such that at times I found it rather hard to care at all.

Perhaps the most egregious example of all this is how this story TELLS us about the characters, rather than allowing us to be there with them. So for example, when Isabella mentions how deeply she comes to care for Akinimanbi, one of the Moulish who take Isabella under their wing, all the reasons WHY that relationship grow and deepen happen weirdly off-page – we get a mention or two of the ways Akinimanbi helps Isabella learn about the jungle, but that’s it. We don’t get to see, feel, or in any way experience the evolution of that relationship ourselves, instead it all happens off-page – which robs it blind. And this problem is endemic, as everyone from Natalie to Mr. Wilder predominately get mentioned in passing rather than being given the page-time to inhabit the story – which left me incredibly frustrated, as I felt like all the best parts of the story were happening somewhere off-page. And frankly, being told, textbook style, why we should care about these characters is a poor substitute for being able to spend time with them ourselves – and without that time, without the chance to get to know and care about our characters, it becomes very, very hard to stay emotionally involved with this or any story.

Really the only personal side to this story at all comes from one scene, where Isabella is finally forced to confront her tangled feelings about essentially abandoning her child in favor of her research. And while that was a really lovely moment, with a wonderful emotional payoff in terms of Isabella’s struggle to accept who she is, versus who society wants her to be, overall it just wasn’t enough to balance out the way this story keeps us as arm’s length.

But of course, all that’s not to say this story is a total wash, because it’s definitely not. Even if it does all come across as a bit academic, there’s still plenty of interest here, as Brennan takes us on a colorful journey to strange and exotic places, from savanna to jungle swamp. And the level of detail she brings to this story instills a lovely sense of authenticity, as Isabella is forced to cope with everything from leeches to malaria to trousers. And though again, for a trip to study dragons, the dragons seem to be weirdly off-page for a large portion of this book – as Isabella mentions observing them without ever really letting us see the dragons ourselves – as a travelogue, this story works and works well. And there’s a lot of be said for exploring these African-inspired wilds from the comfort of our own living rooms.

Plus, happily, while like its predecessor this book never is break-neck in terms of pacing, it does kick into gear in the final third, ramping up the action in an enjoyable way, all leading up to a satisfying conclusion. In fact, in that final third I finally felt like this book shook itself out of its detachment a bit, and started to show rather than tell – which was a welcome relief – and as a result, it upgraded my opinion of this story quite a bit. And while yes, there were perhaps a few too many instances of overt foreshadowing – This Is Going To Be Important In Future Books! – all in all this installment does set the stage nicely for more adventures to come.

So in the end, while this story is by and large a sadly impersonal affair, it does deliver a wonderful portrait of another land, and even manages to be downright adventuresome towards the end. So yes, there is more than enough here to leave me willing to pick up the next Lady Trent adventure – I just hope there’s a bit more emotional ballast the next time around.

Byrt Grade: A-/B+

As Levar Burton used to say – you don’t have to take my word for it…

Kirkus Reviews (starred review) says:

This, the second of Isabella’s retrospective memoirs, is as uncompromisingly honest and forthright as the first, narrated in Brennan’s usual crisp, vivid style, with a heroine at once admirable, formidable and captivating.

Publishers Weekly says:

Lady Trent makes for an intrepid and pleasingly independent protagonist, mastering challenges both emotional and physical.

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