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Saturday, March 29, 2014

“The Tropic of Serpents: A Memoir by Lady Trent” by Marie Brennan (Reviewed by Casey Blair)


Order “The Tropic of SerpentsHERE
Read An Excerpt HERE
Read FBC’s Review of A Natural History of Dragons

The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan is a great follow-up to A Natural History of Dragons. Like its predecessor, it's framed as the next installment of the memoirs of Lady Trent, now an old lady and a famous naturalist.

I still really enjoy Lady Trent’s no-nonsense tone, and Brennan uses the POV effectively: having the story told from a naturalist's perspective puts all the exposition not just in character, but also makes it more interesting by embedding it within the context of the story.

In The Tropic of Serpents, Lady Trent travels to an analog of Africa, traveling from the savannah, with at least a few trappings of civilization she's familiar with, to the Green Hell. The POV choice is marvelous for describing such very different settings without exoticizing the people and cultures she interacts with. Lady Trent deals with different cultural treatments of genders and biology, because the difference is more than just a matter of costuming; she deals with different notions of property and propriety and value; she finds herself more entrenched in politics and what her role means for them than ever before.

As much as I enjoyed the author’s application of POV and framing device, I think it caused some pacing problems later on in the book. Because ostensibly Lady Trent is writing a memoir, not a novel, so she takes breaks from the action to give us all kinds of exposition, and sometimes these are inconveniently placed. By the climax of the novel, I wanted to have all the necessary information already so I could focus on the story, without needing to stop for the protagonist to explain things in the middle of confrontations.

I also found myself frustrated that the protagonist doesn't have much of a character arc in this book. She's come into her own as a naturalist, or at least come to terms with that in her own mind, and so the main personal struggle she faces is in regard to how she thinks about her son. But in practice, by the end this hasn't changed: Lady Trent has dealt with her guilt so that she can presumably work on building a relationship with her son in the future, but she hasn't done anything.

Character developments, anyway: she's made huge advances in understanding dragons, and in the space between the previous book and this one she's grown far less shy about telling people she's going to do whatever she wants.

One of my qualms about the previous novel was that it seemed like there were no other women in Lady Trent’s world of a similarly scientific turn of mind, but Marie Brennan has blown that out of the water in this book: I particularly enjoyed the addition to the main cast of Natalie with her bent for engineering—and her utter disinterest in romance of any kind. While A Natural History of Dragons dealt more with Lady Trent coming to terms with who she was as a person, this volume allowed her to explore the possibilities in her chosen career.

Lady Trent has hinted at happenings in her future that I'm excited to read. So whenever the third installment of this series is out, I'm totally on board.

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