The Tropic of Serpents: Marie Brennan

★★★★

A Memoir by Lady Trent: Book II

The irrepressible naturalist and explorer Isabella Camhurst is back for a new adventure. This time she and her fellow researcher Thomas Wilker are planning to set off for the exotic continent of Eriga, funded by their ever-generous patron Lord Hilford, in order to research the draconic fauna of the country of Bayembe. Their aims are, as always, purely scientific, but Isabella is to find herself drawn into a veritable jungle of complications, both diplomatic and political. For Bayembe is a country on the brink of war and, if Isabella is to fulfill her scientific ambitions, she is going to have to make some hard choices about where her loyalties lie. Told in Brennan’s pitch-perfect narrative voice, this is a spirited romp best described as a Victorian Indiana Jones with dragons.

It was always going to be hard for Isabella to convince her family that she needed to go on another dangerous expedition to study dragons, especially with what happened to her husband Jacob on her last trip to Vystrana. But this time the matter is made even more complicated: for Isabella has a two-year-old son, little Jacob (although she reasonably points out that his nanny cares for him much better than she ever could, with her limited maternal capabilities). Her departure is also snarled about by the matter of her friend Nathalie Oscott, Lord Hilford’s granddaughter, a gifted engineer who is determined to come along. Nathalie’s father vociferously disapproves. Society is very much on his side, of course – how ridiculous that Nathalie should be set on heading off into a war zone rather than finding herself a husband! – but Isabella is inclined to think that a woman has the right to set her own aims. And so, with a bit of subterfuge, the two women head off together, leaving an infuriated aristocrat and a potential scandal in their wake.

Brennan’s books are so wonderful because Isabella tells the story in the first person and her voice is absolutely spot-on. She is firm, no-nonsense and logical, but there is still the very slightest flicker of social anxiety underneath: Isabella knows that she is disapproved of, even though she doesn’t want to care about it. Though we are in a different universe, it’s very clearly based on the Victorian world, with the same social expectations in Isabella’s home country of Scirland (the equivalent of England) and clear linguistic parallels with French (Thiessois) and German (Eiversch). Eriga itself is clearly Africa, although the geography seems to be completely different. Isabella is bound for the trading port of Nsebu, full of soldiers, ex-pats and missionaries. It’s well-stocked with Scirling troops, as part of a diplomatic treaty by which Scirland receives precious consignments of Erigan iron in exchange for putting their more advanced military technology at Bayemebe’s service. But Isabella’s destiny lies uphill in the royal enclave of Atuyem, where the oba himself receives her and makes her an offer she can’t refuse.

Isabella, Wilker and Nathalie find themselves heading into the Green Hell, the treacherous swamp-jungle of Moureen, with a daunting task ahead of them. It’s a quest whose full complexity and delicacy only becomes clear as they encounter the Moulish tribes of the jungle, and come to understand the precarious balance of life and death in this trackless wilderness. The story becomes a proper old-fashioned adventure, full of wild beasts, hair’s-breadth escapes, tribal warfare and daring escapades. And, along the way, there’s plenty to learn about the natural history of Brennan’s fertile imagination. What I enjoyed so much about the book is that Isabella herself isn’t remotely colonial in her outlook. She is a scientist and so her motive is to learn and understand – something that comes in useful in her encounters with the Moulish and her gradual acclimatisation to their society. This isn’t the stock Victorian tale of the plucky Englishman helped by a native sidekick. On the contrary, it’s about ‘Victorians’ trying to reach their goal by absorbing themselves in the societies they encounter. From that point of view, it’s a deliciously feminist, anti-colonial vintage adventure. And, as with the last novel, this book is brought to life with a handful of beautiful full-page maps, portraits and drawings by ‘Isabella’ herself (courtesy of Todd Lockwood).

For anyone who has got this far, but still thinks that a story about dragons really isn’t their thing, I have to stress something. Brennan’s work is not really about dragons (well, I mean, it is, but Isabella could just as easily be studying antelope or lions or rhinos). It’s about human nature, and the way we should challenge ridiculous social conventions that prevent us becoming the people we can be. And it’s about the joys of travel, the broadening of minds, and the formation of friendships both with close colleagues and with those of other cultures, whose ways and mores one should always attempt to understand and respect. It’s what Victorian adventure fiction should have been. I’m going to close with a particularly lovely passage, with which I can sympathise whole-heartedly. Isabella is thinking about the many friends she has made on her travels, with whom circumstances make it impossible to keep up as she would have liked:

So it has been, again and again throughout my life, as I form connections with people and then lose them to distance and time. I mourn those losses, even when I know my erstwhile friends are safe and happy among their own kin. But the only way for me to avoid such losses would be to stay home, to never journey beyond the range of easy visitation. As my life will attest, that is not a measure I am willing to take; nor would I forgo the pleasures of my transient friendships if I could.

Quite right!

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Last in the series – A Natural History of Dragons

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