As you can tell I am steaming ahead with the Lady Trent series! I finished book one, A Natural History of Dragons, and went straight into book two – The Tropic of Serpents. This one is set three years after book two, and Isabella is on another foreign expedition to study dragons.
This time she is accompanied by Tom Wilker (from the first book) and her young friend Natalie (granddaughter of Lord Hilford, her financier, whom we met in the first book, and who proves to be wonderful little feminist). They travel to a country called Eriga which seems to be quite African in climate and peoples. When they first arrive in Point Miriam they encounter a huge number of different peoples and races, something I really enjoyed reading about. It is impressive how many different peoples Brennan creates, giving each of them their own distinct characteristics – whether we observe them briefly or spend most of the story with them.
Eriga is currently at war and Isabella’s country, Scirland, is providing military support. So, Isabella and her team are allowed to visit and explore the region for their research, and of course look for dragons. They end up going into ‘the Green Hell’, a jungle which is actually called Mouleen. The people of Mouleen (the Moulish) are tribal and live in amongst the forest. They act as tour guides and hosts for the Scirlish team and we get lots of stories about struggling to cope with the heat and the minor scandal of cutting up dresses to make trousers. Isabella soldiers on and is admirable in her efforts to acclimatise and understand the Moulish people. This made me like her even more, along with the fact that she speaks about the impracticalities of getting your period while travelling. When they first arrive in Eriga they are invited to stay in the palace, and when a maid discovers that Isabella is menstruating she is sent to the ‘agban’ – the place where women must be sequestered while they menstruate; Isabella thinks this is ridiculous but goes along with it so as not to offend. It ends up being useful as she meets the king’s sister and manages to use that connection later. Anyway, I liked this down to earth attitude and the frankness with which all of this is discussed. It is to true to way women talk about periods and the direct effect they have on day-to-day life.
Something else I very much liked was Isabella’s discussion of her role as both a mother and an adventurer, something that is mentioned in Liz Bourke’s review of the book on Tor.com:
“…in Isabella’s case, society’s disapproval of her choice to leave her three-year-old son in the care of relatives in order to pursue her life’s work. Isabella evinces a complicated attitude towards motherhood, and rightly points out the double standard of a society that would have [her] abandon her own work in favour of devoting her life to her child, while it would expect nothing of the kind when it came to a [man in her position]. This is a topic rarely brought into perspective in the fantasy genre, and that makes me doubly glad to see Brennan treat it with nuance here.”
Isabella’s world is a parallel of our Victorian era, and so we can understand these struggles. As Liz Bourke points out it is also brilliant that all this is blended into the fantasy of the story; this is something that really appeals to me about the Lady Trent series. I’m not a devotee of the fantasy genre so I like these relatable aspects and the links to our world and history. The relations between different peoples are also quite familiar, with the white people coming over to explore, bringing their complicated clothing and imposing military fleet. There are lots of little details in all this that are both charming and engaging, and they create a very believable and immersive world.
I must say that the political and social aspects of the story do sometimes overtake the purpose of their visit to Eriga and Mouleen – research into dragons. Isabella does get to study them and learn a few things, but for me there could have been more dragons in The Tropic of Serpents. I quite like the scientific side of the Lady Trent stories, and would happily have learned more about the anatomy and breeding habits of the swamp-wyrms they come across. And while the drawings in this volume are just as brilliant as those in A Natural History of Dragons, these did not have any captions and I think this was lacking. But otherwise, I loved every minute of this book. I have already ordered the next in the series, The Voyage of the Basilisk, and I’m sure that will be just as brilliant.