LitStack Review: ‘The Tropic of Serpents’ by Marie Brennan

by Sharon Browning
The Tropic of Serpents: A Memoir of Lady TrentTropic of Serpents
Marie Brennan
Release Date:  March 4, 2014
ISBN 978-0-7653-3197-7

Lady Trent is back, as feisty as ever.  We first met her as a young woman in A Natural History of Dragons, where she was grappling with a burning curiosity considered unseemly in a gentlewoman of her social status.  By the end of that book she had been married, widowed, and had under her belt a scientific expedition that had thrust her into an unknown environment where she had battled doubt, isolation – and smugglers.  But she had also emerged with a renewed sense of purpose, a grand leap in understanding, and a reinforcement of the knowledge that she intended on making the study of dragons her life’s focus.

In The Tropic of Serpents, Lady Trent once again takes up her pen to look back at her life – when she was known simply as Mrs. Isabella Camherst, yet to become titled but also incognito as a scholar – three years after her return from the foreign realm of Vystrana and the startling discoveries found among the dragons that inhabit the mountains there.  Her young son, Jacob (named after his father who died during that fateful exposition), is a loved yet unfamiliar part of her life; she understands her role as mother, if not nanny, yet still feels pulled towards science and scholarship rather than domesticity.  She has a bit more leeway as a widow than as an unmarried woman, but still chafes at the stricture society has placed on her to only speak unheralded though the men who have worked alongside her.

Political expediency and professional sabotage push her towards a quick departure on her next exposition, despite the outcry from her family and the roasting she receives from the gossipy tabloids of the day.  While patron Lord Hilford is past the age of being able to attempt any kind of strenuous journey, Isabella is once again in the company of Mr. Thomas Wilker (with their professional relationship a bit less strained than it was in Vystrana), as well as headstrong young heiress Natalie Oscott (Lord Hilford’s granddaughter), whose interest in the exposition lends itself more towards engineering – and escaping her father’s demand to remain in Falchester to find a suitable husband.   Their destination?  The sultry jungles of Eriga, to study the legendary swamp-wryms that abide there.

Although the small band of natural historians aims for no other accomplishments than what will come from solely focusing on scientific pursuits, none of them are naive enough to believe that politics and cultural entanglements will not need to be waded through any less carefully than the native swamps.  But even this awareness does not adequately brace Isabella for the immediate and overwhelming differences she encounters upon their arrival of the port city of Nsebu.

Neither words nor images suffice to communicate what greeted me as we came into port, for even the best artwork is a static thing of the eye alone, and words are by their nature linear.  I can tell you of the smells that assaulted my nose:  the salt sea, the coal smoke of other steamers, the fish and shellfish that even today make up a brisk part of the port’s local trade, the spices whose aromatic vibrancy is all out of proportion to their quantity.  Unwashed bodies and tar, fresh-cut tropical lumber, the greasy stench of lunch being fried for dockworkers and hungry travellers alike.  But I can only tell you of one scent at a time, and I cannot present those to you at the same time as I give you the sounds and the sights, the mad clamour that was my first experience of Eriga.

Almost immediately the scientists are caught up in the intricate political maneuverings of native tribes, warring factions, scheming outsiders and even pressures from “back home”.  A need to tread cautiously so as not to offend local customs and to dance around demands and convoluted loyalties while still maintaining an independent assertiveness has their departure from the settlement delayed again and again.  When they finally do set out across the savannah that precedes the jungle, in the company of a rather loathsome trophy hunter and an even more troubling political opportunist, the real adventure begins.

Author Marie Brennan has once again shown remarkable skill in weaving a tale that is imaginative, enlightening and entertaining, and the smattering of beguiling illustrations by Todd Lockwood gives us wonderful purchase into the alternate history she has created.  The world of Lady Trent is familiar enough that we can slip into it comfortably, and yet different enough (dragons!) to keep us from being complacent.  The platform on which she builds her story – memoir – allows for our heroine to express the depth of her passion for the natural world within a scientist’s perspective, without needing to go into meticulous detail regarding taxonomy and codifications that might be necessary were we reading something more formal such as a contemporary journal or field report.

Plus, memoir gives the added perspective of time and reflection.  We know that Isabella’s survival is certain, as is her success in bringing knowledge of dragons to “modern” minds, as well as overcoming societal mores regarding feminine gentility.  That much is given at the onset in Lady Trent’s humorous diatribe in the  Prologue, from her perch above the fray anchored by age and a lack of concern about public opinion.

As I have not yet finished composing my memoirs, I cannot say with certainty that this, the second volume in the series, will be the most gossip-ridden of them all.  That honour may belong to a later period in my life, before my second marriage, when my interactions with my future husband were grist for a very energetic mill both at home and abroad.  I am still considering how much of that I will share.  But this volume will be a fair contender, as it was during these years that I found myself accused of fornication, high treason, and status as the worst mother in all of Scirland.  It is rather more than most women manage in their lives, and I own that I take a perverse sort of pride in the achievement.

And, since Lady Trent is writing for her own enjoyment, and for ours, she can decide what is prudent to share and what should remain oblique, as well as put a present day perspective on a perhaps less astute in-the-moment situation.  Her parenthetic asides to the narrative are a wonderfully deft touch.

And then there are the dragons!  These are no mythological creatures, although they are surrounded by myth and legend.  Fire breathing?  Not all of them, no, but dragons are, in part, classified as having “extraordinary breath”, fire and acid included, dependent on species.  Flying beasts?  Yes, another classification, along with quadrupedalism, egg laying, and a ruff or fan behind the skull.  Plus, their bones, while the creature is living, are amazingly light, strong and resilient, but upon death, quickly erode into dust, making scientific study of dragon structure difficult and full of conjecture.  But they are creatures of this world; dragonkin in various forms are not rare, even in the English… er, Scirlandish landscapes of Isabella’s childhood, although true dragons tend to inhabit remote areas for understandable reasons.  Isabella is captivated by these amazing beasts, with a scientist’s curiosity, not due to some romantic notion of caves full of gold, sage advice on human affairs or healing tears.  Simply because they are, in and of themselves, magnificent creatures about which little verifiable information is known.

This mixture of no-nonsense practicality, a tenacious sense of self and an appreciation of the infinite possibilities surrounding her make Isabella such a refreshing and entertaining heroine.  She is perfectly willing to poke fun of herself and her situation, and has no compunction over pointing out her own shortcomings.  She chafes at how her best intentions still go awry and how she often does not stop to think before she speaks or acts; she feels guilt at not having an overwhelming maternal instinct and cringes at the distance she herself puts between herself and her son, but still stays true to her own calling: to explore and to learn, and to share her knowledge with others.  It’s refreshing to witness.

It’s interesting to see how much more confident Isabella is in this second novel, as opposed to the young woman from A Natural History of Dragons who moved with a bit of uncertainty in her husband’s shadow, and who was more aware of what she should be doing as opposed to what she really wanted to do.  (I’ve heard that adventures will do that to a person.)  And, as she continues to trust in her own intuitions, I can only believe that further stories of her exploits will prove just as compelling as the one shared in The Tropic of Serpents.

Well played, Ms. Brennan, well played, indeed.

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