The Tropic of Serpents


Marie Brennan


Science Fiction / Fantasy


Date Reviewed:

September 14, 2020

he Tropic of Serpents is the second book in a five book series called The Natural History of Dragons. The basic premise of the series is that on an alternate Earth, in an era equivalent to our 19th century, the widowed Lady Trent, a proper English woman (on this alternate Earth, she is called a Scirling woman, but Scirling is clearly an analog for the British empire) has a fascination for dragons, which exist in various forms on her planet. Each volume in this series describes an expedition to some part of the world where Lady Trent studies the dragons that reside there. In book one, Lady Isabelle Trent traveled to Vystrana, their equivalent Eastern Europe, and made discoveries about the mountain dragons that resided there. In this book, Lady Trent sails to the continent of Eriga (Africa) to learn about the dragons of the savanna and swamps.

The novels are written in first person; they are the presented as the memoirs of Lady Trent, written when she is an old, distinguished woman, lauded for her scientific achievements after a lifetime of exploration and research. But Lady Trent's behavior was not always applauded - at the beginning of her exploring career, the idea of a woman going off on perilous expeditions instead of staying home and running a proper estate is met with denunciations and cries of scandal. But Isabelle shrugs off criticism and sets sail for Eriga, along with two trusted companions - Natalie (who is following Isabelle's example and escaping from a marriage arranged by her father) and Mr. Wilker, who is not an aristocrat, but is a reliable researcher and travel companion. Their destination is Bayembe, an Erigian nation that has recently entered into an alliance with the Stirling forces. The Stirling will exploit the natural resources of Bayembe, and in exchange will provide defense against the oncoming hordes of Ikurinde. It is this political situation that drives much of the plot for Tropic of Serpents.

What disappointed me most about this book is how little time is spent with the actual tracking, measuring, analyzing of the dragons. The whole point of the memoir is presumably to describe the discoveries Isabelle made during her research, but we see so little of that. There are a few chapters on the savanna dragons, but the heart of the story takes place in the trackless swamps of Mouleen, and though there are mighty swamp dragons lurking here, Isabella spends few words describing what she learns. Instead, there is lots of material about Isabelle learning to adapt to the cultures of the Bayembe and the Mouleen swamp dwellers. There are political consequences due to Isabelle's meddling in the political situation, the dragons have secondary importance. Isabelle in the swamps, learning to live like a native, is not a bad story, but the story I was hoping to read would have had a whole lot more dragon encounters.

One nice aspect of this book is that Brennan shows some of Isabelle's flaws, making her more plausible by making her imperfect. Isabelle has a three year old son, and although she loves him, motherhood is not where her heart lines. The fact that Isabelle goes gallivanting about the globe, leaving her son, Jacob, in the care of her relatives, draws much condemnation from society. A heroine who is not a great mother? Unusual. It will be interesting to see how this story arc develops over the ensuing books - will Jacob grow up and join Isabelle on her far flung exploits? Or will he be angry and resentful and cause problems? We shall see.

In the beginning of the novel, there is a sub-plot about a chemist that Isabelle has hired to research how to preserve dragon bones, and to develop artificial bone material. In the wild, dragon bones are incredibly lightweight and yet strong. But when a dragon dies, its bone quickly decay and disintegrate. Someone breaks into the lab of the chemist, Frederick Kemble, and steals his research. But then the story about dragon bones is dropped when Isabelle sets off to Eriga. Presumably, this story arc will be advanced in the remaining volumes in the series. The series is good enough that I intend to read additional entries, The Voyage of the Basilisk is next.