I’m sure you have now heard about WWW Wednesday (even I know about it), but to recap, this is what it entails – you must post about three books:
What you most recently finished reading
What you are currently reading
What you will read next
Here are mine!
What I recently finished reading: Young and Damned and Fair: The Life and Tragedy of Catherine Howard at the Court of Henry VIII by Gareth Russell
This was the second biography of Catherine Howard that I have read this year, and it really was excellent. I am currently planning a blog about this and the other biography (by Josephine Wilkinson).
What I am currently reading: The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown
This was sent to me by Penguin for review, and I’d wanted to read it for a while. It’s an interesting take on a well-known story and historical figure (Matthew Hopkins) and so far it is very engaging. Review to come!
What I will read next: Gone: A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung by Min Kym
Another review copy from Penguin, which also looks intriguing. I love a bit of narrative non-fiction and this looks like the sort of unusual memoir that I will enjoy.
See What I Have Done is one of those books that gets an awful lot of hype and press, and often this puts me off for some reason – but in this case it is entirely deserved and I couldn’t be happier to see promos and reviews all over social media. I read a proof copy back in November and loved it instantly. The premise alone drew me in: it is the story of Lizzie Borden and the infamous murders of her father and stepmother. I love historical fiction, and I love true crime, so this was a perfect blend of both. Lizzie Borden is a fascinating character from history that just gets under your skin. She was famously acquitted of the murders, but there remains suspicion that she was guilty, and the mysteriousness of her character is something that Schmidt uses excellently.
The book is narrated by four people: Lizzie herself, the maid Bridget, Lizzie’s sister Emma, and a man named Benjamin who gets caught up in their story. All of them are unreliable, something that becomes more and more clear the more you read. The women are all wrapped up in the strangeness of the household and the family, tortured by the strained emotions and simmering tensions. Lizzie is clearly not an easy person to live with, but she is not the only one guilty of making things difficult. The Borden family are filled with sadness and a longing for the past, for better days. Lizzie’s father, Andrew Borden, keeps all the windows and doors locked for fear of criminals, and this literal confinement only exacerbates the feeling of being trapped in their lives that all the characters seem to feel.
The women of the house are trapped in their feminine roles and their corsets, never to be free like men and do as they please. And Andrew, the only one with any real power, keeps them that way. The relationships between the women – Lizzie, Emma, Bridget, and the stepmother Abby – are quietly brilliant and acutely observed. They have no obvious reason to dislike each other, but the oppressive atmosphere in the house brings out the worst in them, even if they do not intend it. Like any family they have a few small disputes, but for the Bordens these become life-changing.
Benjamin is one of the only entirely fictional characters in the book. He turns up in their town of Fall River looking for work, and by chance meets their uncle John. Now I’ve decided not to tell exactly how Benjamin gets wrapped up with the Bordens – but suffice to say he gets quite close to them and, crucially, provides an outside view to the events of the story.
I thought both Benjamin and Bridget were excellent choices as narrators. They are both outside of the family, but still close to it, and they give us a slightly different perspective. Bridget observes the quarrels between Lizzie and her parents, and the effects of Lizzie’s moods and is the unique position of being part of the household but not part of the family, so she observes everything without always knowing what it means. The Bordens are a family full of unexpressed emotions, unfulfilled desires, and stifled arguments. Lizzie is the only one that seems to let anything out, and for this she if often treated like a child by her parents, but particularly by her father. Andrew Borden is very stuck in his ways, and is emotionally closed off and quite cold and hard towards his family, even his wife Abby. He does not deal with Lizzie’s outbursts and tantrums very well, and I think he makes her feel even more trapped and stifled than she already does.
Living in the 1800s meant that Lizzie could not have an independent life, and is stuck living in the family home. You can see why she is frustrated with her life, but she is also, frankly, quite childish and selfish, and doesn’t always see that life is sometimes hard for the rest of her family as well. She has a push-pull relationship with her sister Emma, and I think though they love each other there is also a lot of resentment and negative feelings.
Schmidt excels at this sort of family psychology, and as a result the entire cast of characters feel entirely real. This is also due to the first person narratives, and the fact that all the events of the book take place over only two days. This means that everything is examined, often from multiple angles, and small events often take on more meaning. The short time frame allows Schmidt to really get inside her character’s heads and examine exactly what happened and when. I felt that the two days covered in the novel are the culmination of a lifetime of family secrets and strong emotions, of dysfunctional relationships, and unfulfilled desires. All the problems and issues within the Borden family are exemplified in those two days, and as we know the results are extreme.
As the book progresses you realise that Schmidt has a clear opinion about whether or not Lizzie is guilty, but this doesn’t ruin anything and I don’t think she is trying to influence the reader. It is still up to you to decided whether you think she really killed Andrew and Abby. She remains a mystery to this day.
Sarah Schmidt writes a wonderful blog where she often discusses her experiences of writing See What I Have Done, and tells the story of why she chose to write about Lizzie Borden. I would really recommend reading this as it helps to explain some of the reasons why Lizzie remains in the public consciousness and why she is still so fascinating.
Published in May 2017 by Tinder Press in the UK. I read a proof copy kindly provided by the publisher for review.
Like many readers I loved Hannah Kent’s first novel Burial Rites (2013), so I had high expectations for The Good People. Like its predecessor it is set in the first half of the 19th century, this time in 1820s Ireland. Also like Burial Rites, it features unhappy women as its central characters.
The blurb dedicates a paragraph each to the three central women of The Good People – Nóra, recently widowed and looking after her disabled grandson Micheál; Mary, her maid, who cares for Micheál; and Nance, the local ‘handy woman’ who has ‘the knowledge’ and serves as a healer for the village. Initially the focus is on Nóra as she grieves for her husband and struggles to take care of Micheál. We learn that his mother, Nóra’s daughter Johanna, passed away and his father brought him to Nóra because he could not care for him himself. Micheál is about four years old and before he was brought to her, Nóra had only seen him once before, at the age of two, and he was healthy. He could speak and walk – two things that he cannot do when he is brought to her.
Micheál, though four, is more like a baby and can do nothing for himself. His condition is inexplicable to his family, and theories abound as to why he is now so unwell, when once he was healthy. When the villagers come to Nóra’s house for her husband’s wake, she asks her neighbour Peg to look after her grandson – she is ashamed of him and does not want to face the stares and questions of her visitors, or their theories about him.
Initially Nóra worries that Johanna and her husband may have mistreated or neglected Micheál as he is so thin, but over time she doubts this. Slowly both Nóra and the others in the village begin to think that the child may be a changeling – not really a child at all but a fairy left in his place, while the real Micheál has been taken away by the ‘Good People’, the fairies. This was a common belief in many cultures at the time (the Wiki page is quite good) and was how people explained disability or conditions that we now understand thanks to modern science and medicine.
Nóra soon employs Mary to help her look after Micheál. She becomes more and more convinced that her grandson is a changeling and leaves Mary to care for him. The village is a place filled with old stories and beliefs, and its people are ruled by superstition and fear, as well as gossip. There is a dichotomy between their Christianity and their belief in fairies, curses, and the healing powers of herbs and old remedies. This is nicely demonstrated by the cynicism of their priest, Father Healy. He does not believe in the Good People and condemns them as pagan nonsense.
He similarly condemns Nance and her belief that she has been given knowledge by the Good People and is able to cure illnesses and ailments. There are several fascinating and challenging conversations between them as he urges her to give up her practices, and she calmly defends herself. Nance’s whole life has been filled with magic and fairies, with her mother being ‘taken’ by them, and her aunt Maggie teaching her how to use their knowledge and cures. In a series of flashbacks to Nance’s youth it becomes clear that her mother was mentally ill in some way, and Nance’s grief was eased by her new knowledge of the Good People and their ways.
As Nóra becomes more desperate she turns to Nance for help with Micheál, and this is where the story really gets interesting. It is heartbreaking to read about the boy’s suffering, and the stress of caring for him, but it gets worse as Nóra’s belief that he is not really her grandson deepens. She starts to call him ‘it’ and becomes angry when he cries. As Nóra becomes more and more hardened to the boy, Mary becomes more worried about him, and warns Nóra that even if she believes he is a changeling she should not be so cold and cruel towards him. Mary’s fear of God means that she is able to protect the boy from the worst of his grandmother’s feelings towards him.
I won’t spoil the book by writing about what happens when Micheál is taken to Nance, and what happens at the end. It is a story that is sometimes difficult to read, as we can see that Micheál is suffering – but we also see how hard it is care for him without modern conveniences and technology. Mary has the best intentions but is still worn down by sleep deprivation and the constant attention her young charge requires. The world these characters inhabit is hard and cruel, and unforgiving. Towards the end of the book you really begin to realise just how isolated they are in their rural community and how ignorant they are of the developments of science and technology. They are illiterate and exist in their own small world.
Hannah Kent sensitively portrays a certain time and a certain place in The Good People. None of the characters are portrayed as evil or bad because they believe that Micheál may be a changeling – rather they are ignorant of any other explanation for his condition and desperately want a way to make things better. They are torn between folklore and Christianity and inhabit a world that seems completely alien to us now. Some parts of the novel are heart-wrenchingly sad, and you wish you could reach in and make the characters see that what they believe simply isn’t true.
The Good People is as intense and moving as Burial Rites, and also presents a lot of moral and ethical questions, many of which are indirectly but carefully examined. As expected Hannah Kent’s writing is as lovely as ever, and the novel is immersive and engaging. I would only warn readers against the deep sadness in this book – but otherwise it is highly recommended.
Published in 2017 by Pan Macmillan (UK edition pictured above).
I’ve only participated in WWW Wednesday once before, and that was ages ago, so I felt like giving it another try. The idea is to post three things:
What you most recently finished reading
What you are currently reading
What you will read next
Hence ‘WWW’! So here goes:
What I recently finished reading: The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
I read this last month after having meant to read it for years, and I’m glad I finally did. I was spurred on by the upcoming TV adaptation, and also by the fact that this mad dystopia seems oddly relevant these days, especially in the States… my review is here.
What I am currently reading: Labyrinths: Emma Jung, her Marriage to Carl, and the Early Years of Psychoanalysis by Catrine Clay
I am almost at the end of this book and have loved it so far. I knew nothing about Emma Jung before I read it, and she has turned out to be an engaging and fascinating character. I would recommend this to anyone interested in the field and period. You can see the book on GoodReads here.
What I’m going to read next: The Good People by Hannah Kent
I loved Hannah Kent’s first novel, Burial Rites, and so when I heard she had a new book coming out I just knew I had to read it. This one has a similarly beautiful cover, and I think it will be just as fascinating and wonderful as its predecessor. You can read more about it on GoodReads here.
So there you have it! What are you WWW Wednesday books?
There are always books that one means to read, that ‘should’ be read – and for me one of them was The Handmaid’s Tale. It was published before I was even born, so it has always been popular, always been revered in my experience. This book was always on my list, always something I thought I should read, something that I might find interesting. The new TV series based on the book, coming out later this year, finally pushed me to buy a copy and actually read it.
I was surprised how short it is (my copy is about 300 pages). When I’d read about it before it had always seemed like this grand story that needed time and patience; and in some ways this was true. For a book of its length, there is an awful lot of ‘content’ in The Handmaid’s Tale. There is an awful lot left unsaid, or only implied. Our narrator, Offred, shares her story but is also careful and guarded, only telling what she chooses. We never learn her real name, for example. The ending is also somewhat ambiguous.
Margaret Atwood apparently classes this novel as ‘speculative fiction’ rather than ‘science fiction’ and I think that’s correct. It is a dystopian novel above anything else, an alternative history of America. But like science fiction it is very detailed and ‘high concept’ with a lot of context needed to really understand what’s going on. Offred gives this to us in pieces so that at first we are lost and following her blindly, but as the book goes on we get more of the wider picture and start to form our own opinions. This was also my experience with the other Atwood novel I’ve read, Alias Grace. That novel has a multitude of perspectives and truths, and while The Handmaid’s Tale is not quite so psychological, it is multi-faceted and filled with the possibility of deceit and betrayal – amongst the characters, but also for the reader.
Atwood likes to challenge her readers, and this novel was certainly challenging to me. It was an infuriating mix of fascinating story, intriguing narrative technique, and utter misery and oppression, for both the characters and the reader. I can’t say I really enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale, and it took me a while to read because sometimes I just didn’t want to hear about the nightmarish world that Offred inhabits. During my breaks between reading I wondered whether the book seemed like a feminist novel to me, and in some ways it does – it is about women fighting back. But it also isn’t. Women have been complicit in creating the Republic of Gilead. You wonder what the Wives, Aunts, Econowives, and Marthas really think about the way they live – they have a better deal than the Handmaids, but they are still trapped, and any power or agency they have has been given to them by the men.
I also wondered whether the book is trying to make a statement about religion, or rather when you reduce religion to its fundamentalist principles and then use those for your own gain – on a personal or national level. The Republic of Gilead is ruled by religion, but none of the characters we encounter seem very concerned with it in any form except one of authority. Do any of them really believe in God? Offred mentions ‘true believers’ but they seem few and far between.
One thing that frustrated me was the lack of detail about the rules, and how things became this way – but I suppose that is the point. Offred only tells us what she wants to, and she is clearly traumatised by the whole situation and what she has gone through before – thankfully we do learn about her past throughout the novel. I think this is also just me as a reader – some people are happy with ambiguity in a novel, and others are not. For me, it felt like there was so much more that could have been explored, and while I appreciate that Atwood chose to be ambiguous in order to leave open possibilities, and to encourage the reader to speculate, I didn’t really like this side of The Handmaid’s Tale. At the end I felt unsatisfied, and wished there was more discussion, more investigation. Everything was just so vague and uncertain. I know a lot of people love this book, but it just didn’t do it for me. Atwood is a masterful writer, especially in her carefully planned plots and her manipulative narrators, but for me The Handmaid’s Tale was too frustrating, too impenetrable, too miserable, and too unpleasant for me to enjoy. Still, it’s an inspired concept and I am curious to see what the new TV adaptation will be like – although I know for certain that it won’t be any fun.
Originally published in 1985 by McClelland & Stewart. Reprinted many times, most recently by Vintage. I read the Vintage Future Classics 2005 edition (pictured above).
My Name is Lucy Barton has been included on the longlist for the Man Booker Prize 2016, and so understandably it’s quite popular at the moment generating a bit of hype. Almost every review I have read (both in newspapers/magazines and online) has been favourable, mentioning the beauty of the writing and the emotional depth of the story. My fiance’s mother gave me her copy to read, and I had high hopes.
It is a novel without much of a plot. Our narrator Lucy is looking back at her life and recounts the time she spent in hospital in the mid 1980s. Her mother, who she had not seen for years, came to visit her and stayed for five days. They talked mostly about people they used to know, gossiping and laughing. That is the frame for the story, and the starting point for Lucy to recount various other scenes in her life that are relevant and or in some way related to this time or this visit from her mother.
Ostensibly it is a novel about a mother/daughter relationship and the nature of family. The Barton family were desperately poor when Lucy was growing up and clearly didn’t have an easy time; there are also allusions to some kind of abuse, possibly sexual, though no details are given. Whatever happened it seems like Lucy is living in a post-trauma phase in her life – her narration is very childlike and simple, and she fights to explain everything she says. Her voice is distinctive but in my opinion not very well executed as the childlike side of her is frustrating rather than endearing. She struggles to understand people and has very little emotion in her voice. I wasn’t sure if this was deliberate (which would explain either her being traumatised or possibly on the autism spectrum) or just the deep self-consciousness of the writing. It seems to be a ‘thing’ these days to write in a quite blank way that is supposed to convey deep emotion in a method similar to poetry, and while this sometimes works it certainly doesn’t in this case. This ‘blankness’ also meant that to me the characters seemed underdeveloped. Given that Lucy is our narrator she is the most fully-formed, but I would say she is only 75% developed. All the other characters, including her mother, are almost like templates – they do not seem to have full personalities. As with the tone of Lucy’s narration I wasn’t sure if this was deliberate (perhaps demonstrating that Lucy finds it hard to understand other people) or just a flaw in the writing.
Many reviews I’ve read praised the deep emotion of the book – but to me this novel is almost emotionless. Lucy’s voice is very flat and unmoving, and I found her hard to connect or empathise with. Given most people’s very different reaction, I wonder if I am missing something that the author is doing intentionally, or if this book just wasn’t for me. I’d be interested to hear from other readers who didn’t completely love it.
Lastly I want to consider Lucy’s relationship with her mother. Before the hospital visit they haven’t seen each other in about a decade, and the reason for this seems to be a mixture of Lucy’s desire to move away from her family to start her own life, and her parents’ dislike of her husband. Lucy also seems to have some level of resentment or anger towards her mother for her difficult childhood, though we do not know exactly what happened there. The mother is very distant and emotionally unavailable – Lucy says she has come to expect that her mother can never say ‘I love you’. They speak a couple of times about Lucy’s childhood and the rest of the family, but always briefly and evasively; most of their conversations are about people they remember from the past and where they ended up. Most of these stories are of divorce and heartbreak, but Lucy and her mother enjoy recounting them. This seems to bridge a gap between them, but it also means that most of their conversations are largely meaningless. The mother leaves the hospital quite abruptly and after that Lucy states they do not see each other again for a long time. I think I could see what Elizabeth Strout was trying to do with this relationship, to show them trying to connect with each other, but her method of doing this made it very hard for me to connect with the characters. There was not enough depth to their joint story, and it felt like there could have been so much more to it.
My Name is Lucy Barton is an odd little novel. I think a lot of people will warm to it, but it just didn’t work for me.
As some readers may know, I was a big fan of Emma Chapman’s first novel How To Be A Good Wife. It was a taught thriller with wonderful characters and plotting, and though dark in subject matter it was a joy to read.
Chapman’s literary skills are similarly showcased in her new novel The Last Photograph. It is the story of Rook Henderson, a photographer whose life was changed by his time in Vietnam during the war there. The book alternates between Rook’s life in the 1960s, and the present day, and though this kind of time-hopping can sometimes be jarring, Chapman carefully links the section together so that they flow nicely and nothing gets muddled.
There are two time frames, and there are also the two sides of Rook’s life – his work in Vietnam, and his life at home with his wife June. The novel covers his entire relationship with June and the impact that his working away from home has on their marriage. I thought this was sensitively handled and as a whole the portrait of their marriage is both sympathetic and rather stark. Chapman excels at presenting the subtleties of a relationship to the reader through dialogue as well as things left unsaid.
Personally I enjoyed the scenes in Vietnam the most. While I have seen movies and read books that discuss this place at this time, it was refreshing to see it through the eyes of a photographer, and a British one at that. The military aspect is not the focus – instead we look at the ordinary people, both the Vietnamese and the civilians like Rook who are visiting. He quickly bonds with two American journalists, Henry and Tom, and they play pivotal roles in his experience of Vietnam, both personally and professionally. The sections set in Vietnam are vivid and exciting, with Rook slowly realising how serious the situation really is. He captures amazing photographs and you can see why he likes being there, in the middle of the action.
The scenes set back home in England are of a different feel. When they are young Rook and June’s life is full of hope and excitement, but as Rook travels more and more their relationship begins to strain and there is less and less happiness in their lives. To be honest at times this got a little grim. They find it hard to communicate, Rook in particular – he bottles up his feelings and cannot find happiness in the ordinariness of life with June. His refusal to fully engage with that life, instead always yearning for adventure, made him quite a frustrating character. He is obviously unhappy with his lot and feels unfulfilled, but his only solution for this is to run away.
Rook’s passion for photography is his redeeming feature. The passages exploring this are lovely, as Rook finally feels in control, able to capture time in an image. He sees suffering and death in Vietnam but he knows that if he does not take a photograph then there will be no evidence and no one will know what happened. He revels in the details captured on film, in the impact of his work. The importance of photographs in reportage is analysed and celebrated in The Last Photograph, and is almost worth reading for this fact alone.
It isn’t the most cheery of books, but it is beautifully written and full of human understanding. The characters throughout are flawed and imperfect, and this coupled with Chapman’s precise prose makes them come alive. A successful second novel if ever there was one.
I bought this book last year, and somehow have only just got around to reading it. Too many books as always. Despite being about life during the Second World War I knew that it would not be a heavy read – and so I took it with me on holiday to Mallorca.
The introduction and afterword provide plenty of information about Mollie Panter-Downes and the context in which these stories came about: they were all published in The New Yorker during the course of the War. Panter-Downes was their ‘writer in London’ and these stories were her way of communicating what ordinary English life was like between 1939 and 1944. Also included in the book are two of her ‘Letter from London’ articles that were also published in The New Yorker – one from 1939 and one from 1944. They bookend the stories and remind us that while these are fictional tales they are based on the realities of civilian life in this period and place.
Mollie Panter-Downes was a journalist as well as writer of fiction and this is demonstrated in the matter-of-fact nature of her storytelling. Her characters live ordinary lives, fully realised, that become extraordinary in one way or another – whether it a sewing group arguing over whether to make pyjamas for Greek troops, or a husband leaving his wife to go and fight. Domestic drama becomes a microcosm of the conflict and change that every country involved experienced during the War. The silent pain of a housewife represents the pain of all those who have lost something.
The fact is that Mollie Panter-Downes was a beautiful writer. One of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much was the pure loveliness of her language, the nuances and the perfectly captured moments. There is great emotional depth in her stories, but it is buttoned up by the characters and their will to ‘keep calm and carry on’. They are so very English in their desire for life to continue and to prevent their world from falling apart.
The story that the book takes its name from,’Good Evening, Mrs Craven’, is one of the most heartbreaking. The woman in question is called ‘Mrs Craven’ by a restaurant owner who doesn’t know she is in fact Mr Craven’s mistress. When he is called to fight she has no way of knowing if he is still alive, and resorts to calling the real Mrs Craven and pretending to be an old friend of her husband, asking if she has had any news. Their conversation is so well composed that it seems real, and you can feel the pain of both women.
Most of the stories focus on the women left behind, but there are men too – those too old or unwell to fight. We see their frustration at not being able to go, and their sadness that another war has come. No one escapes the pain of being caught in this impossible situation, but while these stories are sometimes sad they are ultimately uplifting as a whole. There are moments of humour scattered throughout and the overriding impression is that although life has changed irrevocably, it does in fact go on. The English spirit perseveres and Mollie Panter-Downes reminds us that there is always something to fight for.
The stories in Good Evening, Mrs Craven were originally published in The New Yorker, 1938-1944, and published as this collected by Persephone Books in 1999 and 2008.
I’m focusing purely on reading at the moment, and I know it’ll be a week or so until my next review – so in the meantime I thought I’d share a ‘preview’ of what’s coming up, both in my reading and here on the blog.
I am about to finish reading the third book in the Lady Trent series by Marie Brennan – TheVoyage of the Basilisk. It’s just a wonderful as the previous two and goes even deeper into the dragon science as well as Lady Trent’s life and personality. As I’ve blogged about the two previous books separately, I plan to wait until I’ve read book four (In the Labyrinth ofDrakes) and then blog about that with The Voyage of the Basilisk in one post.
Two other books I will be combining into one post are Gone to Ground by Marie Jalowicz Simon and A Woman in Berlin. As you probably know these are both memoirs of being a woman, alone, in Berlin during the Second World War. They are both excellent books that made a deep impression on me – so much that I read them both a couple of months ago but still haven’t worked out how to write about them. But I am determined to do this in July.
As I mentioned recently, I have organised my TBR into reading lists arranged by topic/type of book. This has helped me to narrow down the list and focus on what I really want to read rather than what I might one day want to read, at some point.
To this end I have purchased two books from my new reading lists, and these will be my next reads: The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls and Girls Will Be Girls by Emer O’Toole. These are two books that I’ve wanted to read for quite a while, and the news that The Glass Castle is being adapted into a film (starring the excellent Brie Larson) moved that one to the top of the list.
Beyond that, I will be dipping into The Madwoman in the Attic and reading it where I can – it’s so huge that I think I could be overwhelmed by it if I read it cover to cover with no breaks! Once I’ve read the Walls and O’Toole I’ll be choosing my next book from my new reading lists – at the moment I’m leaning towards Born With Teeth by Kate Mulgrew. I loved her as Captain Janeway in Voyager and am now watching Orange is the New Black, and this reminded me that I have wanted to read her memoir for a while. Or I might choose something from my Mental Health list…
You can see my reading lists here – plenty to choose from!
My post about Gone to Ground and A Woman in Berlin will be up by the end of this week.
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.