Review: The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan

‘Would that I were a man,’” I said, quoting Sarpalyce’s legend. “Except that I do not wish I were a man. I only wish that being a woman did not limit me so.

***Trigger warning for colonialism, sexism, grief, death of a spouse, mention of child loss and kidnapping***

Possible spoilers for the first book.

We’re back with Lady Trent! High society, dragons, a scandal and a new trip! I decided after a reread of A Natural History of Dragons that I wanted to continue the series. This year I’ve been focusing on reading what I know I will enjoy and mostly keeping an eye on sub genres, tropes and other things I’ve liked. And I love fantasies of manners so today, we’re back with my favourite Lady of them all.

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

If I were to sum up this book compared to the first, I would say that it has a far less structured plot but delivers even further on Isabella’s character development and adds to the world building that Marie Brennan started in the previous one. It has everything I enjoyed but I really felt it was let down by the messy plot.

This is definitely a draw back to reading the books on audio as well but there are a lot of side characters this time in Isabella’s expedition. When we meet her this time, there has been some time since her trip to Vystrana. Her son is now three, and to put it mildly, she is struggling. Societal pressures, familial input she didn’t ask for and a difficulty to connect with her son being among some. I appreciated this extra conflict Isabella faces, mostly because it comes into play later on in the story when she is in Eriga (a parallel to our Africa).

I see a lot of critiques of her character in the first book about how as a woman in high society, she does very little to confront her vast amount of privilege. I could especially see that in some interactions between her and the local maid servant she employed in Vystrana. This book does tackle that and tackles it very well in my opinion. Isabella is not only in another country that employees vastly different beliefs and societal structures but she is doing it as a widow. She doesn’t have a husband to shield her. In Erigan culture, widows are treated very differently to those in Scirland. It is also refreshing to see a protagonist acknowledge their own vivid flaws and messily, and realistically, try to unpack them.

We get an addition of a new character as well in Natalie. She functions as both Isabella’s protege and companion, aiming to work as a naturalist herself but leaning more toward physics than biology. I really loved Natalie, mostly for her charm but also just the fact she is a runaway heiress who wants to make things and wear trousers. We again meet Mr. Wilker as well, a man I mentioned in my previous review. I really like Mr. Wilker overall and I enjoyed having him back, with the new view of him from the narrator that confirms that she herself was unfair in her judgement of him previously.

The main issue this book had was the wafer thin, and often forgotten, plot. There is a formula to these fantasies of manners that I do really enjoy and this definitely sets up to be that. There is a distinct moment at the start where it looks like this is going to be part political intrigue. And it’s kind of just left there? Same for another few smaller plot lines, one from the very start of the book, that even when we get a resolution it’s hard to remember they were even a thing.

Overall, I still had a great time with this. I plan on starting the third book this week. The audio books remain to be so enjoyable so I will definitely be finishing the series that way. If you have read this, please do let me know. Thanks for checking in guys, happy reading!

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