Book Review: THE TROPIC OF SERPENTS by Marie Brennan

Genre: Fantasy
Age Range: Adult
Star Rating: 5 stars
Series: yes - second book



Book cover for THE TROPIC OF SERPENTS: title in black above drawing of green dragons

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.

Synopsis taken from Goodreads. Add to your shelves here.


You can so clearly see Marie Brennan’s background as an anthropologist in this book (you can in the others, but this is the one that made me sit up and go “oh, she really knows her stuff.”) The previous book involves Isabella coming into contact with a culture that had a few elements that reminded me of the north-east of Europe – towards Russia. It’s very much not the same as her own (obviously British-inspired) culture, but it wasn’t based on entirely different cultural identities and perceptions of self and power hierarchies.

One of the culture Isabella spends a lot of time among this time around very much is based on different values and ideals to the western culture most readers will be used to. To build something like that culture, for it to feel so thought out and 3D and (to me at least) not like a gimmick or a mockery, takes so much work – and a real depth of understanding about how cultures form and evolve.

The pacing of this book is rather slow, very scientific in feel because of the characters’ approaches to life. This is perfectly captured in the way Isabella goes on long descriptive analyses of her surroundings, her fascination with the way the ecosystem works. It means that, though these books all clock in around 330-350 pages, they take much longer to read than I’d expect for that length. It’s not that it’s not engaging (quite the opposite) but that the pacing forces manic reading speeds like mine slow down.

I love the attention to detail and academic-without-being-dire tone of this book. I do like non-fiction, but I like the readable ones, and this catches that feel but with a lot more humour. Plus that attention to detail and musing convinces you that this really is a Natural Historian writing. A more bam-bam-bam action book that didn’t ponder about draconic habits would fail to sell the central tenet of the character – her life is built around researching dragons.

There is some politics of war and colonisation for resource gain in this book, and I loved the last like 50 pages. Based off two books, there seems to be a trend of putting a lot of action into the very ending, the culmination of a lot of threads slowly seeded beforehand.

Onto the next book!

Read my reviews of other books by Marie Brennan:

The Memoirs of Lady Trent (this series):

With Alyc Helms (as M. A. Carrick)

Rook and Rose:

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