The Tropic of Serpents – Marie Brennan

And now for something completely different. We go from “so now I’m going to whinge about poorly-characterised women for six hundred words” to a reprise of aNHoD’s “woo Victorian lady biologists!”.

So indeed, woo, Victorian lady biologists. Now with 100% more lady biologists.

The premise is much the same as the first book – Isabella goes off to mysterious (but somehow familar, if slightly name-altered) foreign parts and there are dragons, shenanigans and foreshadowing. Hurrah! Tom Wilker sticks around from the first book, which I think is great, because he provides a rather interesting foil for Isabella’s gung ho silliness, and we acquire an additional main – Natalie. She’s a sort of middle point between Tom’s caution and Isabella’s silliness… but also provides an extreme point of view from another perspective. All the way through the first book, Isabella basically stuck within the framework of what society wanted from her (marriage to a respectable gentleman, general respectability and wifeliness… all that sort of thing) while subtly and cunningly getting… if not quite what she wanted then as near as she could. She got married… to a husband who was willing and keen to encourage her scientific passions and take her on expeditions with him. She didn’t go in her own right in the first book, but as a secretary and assistant and sketch-artist. In this book, spoilers, she’s a widow, so she has a lot of societally acceptable freedom she didn’t have in aNHoD. And, as before, she pushes this to the limits but never really transgresses any of them.

Natalie, however… Natalie is what I suspect we all secretly slightly wanted while reading the first book. Natalie is essentially going “dash it all I shall be a spinster and the consequences can go hang”. She wants to be an engineer or a mathematician or an adventurer or… something. She’s not sure what, but she wants to be it and damn it all she will. Which is refreshing, and exciting… but also needed Isabella’s previous goings on (and her current financial and social stability) to make it logically consistent with the world of the book. The wild and joyous rebellious abandon is fantastic, but I love that the author has still grounded it in realism. She’s obviously got a really good sense of her fake-Victorian-England, and has tried very hard to make sure what happens is really feasible within those constraints. They’re a bit scandalous… a bit odd… but never absolutely beyond acceptable – because they need to remain within the bounds of acceptable to, for instance, publish… or be funded on their expeditions. Like I said, the author knows what she’s doing with this, and has pulled it off really well.

We still have all the right balance of adventure and derring-do running alongside “but science!” and wonderful character development. The voice of the older Lady Trent narrator and her foreshadowing and comments continue to undercut young her’s enthusiasm and daftness, and provide a great and balanced view of the character across time. It makes me really really look forward to later books so I can read older Lady Trent as herself. And she drops such hints… She strikes a great tone, part way between conversational and documentary, and lays things out neatly and precisely, as in aNHoD.

What I especially like is that we get a bit more development on Tom Wilker. There will be some spoilers from here on out, I warn. So we knew from the first book that he’s from a less upper class family than Isabella is, and there was some resentment between them, with each casting a slightly jealous eye over the other’s advantages, and slightly forgetting the other’s impediments. This time, they get over that somewhat, and there’s a really lovely moment where they essentially decide to team up against the scientific establishment as science-buddies. And I love that they can do that, and there’s a clear declaration of absolutely zero love interest, especially in a book set in a time when male/female relations were really really subject to scrutiny on the wholehearted assumption that there could be no such friendships like that. Because the science-party in this book is much smaller, Tom gets more page-time, and we get a bit more of a chance to appreciate, through Isabella’s eyes, that he too has had to struggle to get where he is, facing different obstacles that are just as pernicious as hers. He too has worked within the bounds of what is allowed by society, and by being constantly deferent to his “betters” he has managed to carve out a place for himself among them but will never be their equal, just as Isabella can get herself on these expeditions, but will never be able to be seen as a scientist among scientists for her gender. And they have their moment, and decide “you know what? No!”. We knew from older-voice Isabella in the first book that over the course of her life, she does go all the way up against all this, and it’s lovely to see the beginning of it actually materialising in the plot here.

What we don’t see materialising is any more exposition on the Draconeans. Just more hints. Come oooooon Ms. Brennan I want to knooooow… I know your main character is just obsessed with biology but you keep dropping hints about this cool ancient civilisation and you can’t leave me hanging like this!

The only thing I’m potentially iffy about is something I’m only iffy about because of my own ignorance. In this book, Isabella et al. are in fake Victorian colonial Africa (I’m not sure which country because of aforementioned ignorance, but I am pretty sure it borders on or is at least near fake Victorian colonial Swaziland). I have no idea how realistic and nuanced her handling of the cultures here is, so I can’t really comment properly, but since I at no point started wincing, I’ve definitely seen worse. It’s a start? They get involved in local politics, and things get a bit complex and fun, but Isabella makes it clear to the reader and in the story that she doesn’t really want to play politics, she’s just in it for the dragons, so manages to extricate herself from getting embroiled in anything too potentially iffy.

And then of course, there are the dragons. They continue to be excellent, and Isabella continues to Victorian science them. What more could we want? I do find the action shot of the swamp-wyrm on the front cover much less aesthetically pleasing than the blue dragon on the first book, mostly because the motion-effect just looks a bit silly… and there are fewer interesting pictures throughout, which is sad. But we get new dragons, and they continue to be fascinating and slightly mysterious, so I’m not actually grumbling.

I love it. I’m going to read the next one as soon as I clear my current to-read pile (which is not sizeable but certainly has more substance than usual). Until then, I have ‘blogs to do on more Victorian-era fantasy (first book of the Parasol Protectorate) and my first foray into SF tv show novelisations (Spock Must Die!), both of which I have finished reading, and then some Babylon 5 novelisations and Lovecraft to get through. I will probably also shout about Babylon 5 the tv show on here too, because I have many feelings about it right now.

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About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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