In the first part of The Tropic of Serpents, Isabella continues trotting the globe – with friends both old and new along for the ride!
This review covers Part 1 of this book, and will include spoilers for it and for A Natural History of Dragons.
“During these years I found myself accused of fornication, high treason, and status as the worst mother in all of Scirland…”
Attentive readers are already familiar with how a bookish young woman named Isabella first set out on the historic course that would lead her to becoming the world’s premier dragon naturalist. Three years after her journey through Vystrana, the illustrious (and occasionally scandalous) Lady Trent defies convention to embark on an expedition to the war-torn continent of Eriga, home of the legendary swamp-wyrm. Accompanied by an old associate and a runaway heiress, Isabella must brave oppressive heat, palace intrigues, gossip, and other hazards in order to satisfy her 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.
Soooo I totally dropped the ball with the reviews for this series about halfway through the first book. There are some Reasons for that, but the list certainly does not include “didn’t enjoy it”. In fact, I adored it! There was tension (though, thanks to the narrative style, not too much of it!), a nice plot mystery to build it up with (and which was at least partially solved in highly amusing Scooby Doo style, if you ask me) and a genuinely shocking twist that left me reaching for tissues by the end.
Oh, Jacob. JACOB. WHY.
I mean, I knew intellectually that his death may well occur eventually, his last name not being Trent and all, but still – I WAS NOT READY. We barely knew him! And I liked him, darnit. I am really upset over his fate.
But this is about our heroine, and while I adore all the highly improper gung-ho attitude with which Isabella attacks life, I also deeply appreciate that this facet of her character is not all that drives her. She would still be entertaining, but she’d be two-dimensional; thankfully Brennan is a better writer than that, and there is so much more to know about Isabella.
The Tropic of Serpents picks up her life story about three years after the Vystrana expedition: she’s remained good friends with Lord Hilford, and her relationship with Tom Wilker has even improved following what they went through together. She’s befriended the earl’s grand-daughter Natalie, a young lady with her heart and mind set on being an engineer. Thanks to her determined efforts to be her own woman despite her father’s – and society’s – objections, Natalie (naturally) won me over instantly.
Then there’s Isabella’s two-year-old son, her living reminder of his departed father and namesake. This is one of the ways in which we’re shown the true, complicated humanity of Isabella, and how well Brennan writes her, because rather than doting upon the little boy who reminds her of his father, Isabella has had a difficult time connecting with her son the way most ‘good’ mothers are expected to. The important thing, and this is highlighted here, is that this doesn’t necessarily make her a bad mother; it only shows us that motherhood is not just a switch that we can flip on as soon as pregnancy happens. Being a good mother is hard work, and it’s hard on the emotions. What we’re shown is the inner struggle Isabella has faced when it comes to pursuing her own life’s ambitions, versus not being a bad mother.
Did I have the right to undertake such risk? I can only give the same answer I gave then: that I have, and had, as much right as any widower in the same situation. Few question the widower’s decision, but everyone questions the widow’s.
And it isn’t only Isabella whom we get to see facing such struggles in the face of what society expects or deems proper. She is the story’s narrator, and limiting us as the reader to only her perspective or experiences would be an easy, if perhaps understandable, trap to fall into. What I really appreciate is that Brennan doesn’t do so. Isabella may be a unique woman in this setting but history can and does show us that such women have never been as rare as all the men who write the history books might have us believe. We go from Isabella’s admittedly thorny but always interesting interactions with Dagmira in the first book, to her friendship with Natalie here. That friendship has had three years to develop, and so what we see here is two women of like minds, however different their interests are, who are comfortable enough with each other to be open and honest about what they want from life and how they feel about the hand it’s dealt them.
Natalie doesn’t want to get married and be a homebound, dutiful wife; she wants to travel and pursue her mathematical passions. She’s an engineer in the making, and she has the perfect, if perhaps equally challenged, ally in Isabella. And if Isabella can refuse to fit herself into society’s mould, who is she to say Natalie should?
Sidenote: This is pretty much a total derailing of this topic but I just have to say WILLIAM LAURENCE I AM LOOKING SO HARD AT YOU RIGHT NOW. Lady Trent would have absolutely none of Captain Laurence’s nonsense. I just know it.
So Isabella’s second expedition gets underway (though not without a nicely intriguing sideline into investigating a shocking theft that’s totally not going to come back later and bite anyone, oh no) with her friend on board, although against her father’s wishes – and on that particular subject I only want to say UP YOURS, NATALIE’S DAD.
I don’t like him very much. I can understand his position, but liking him is beyond me. Sorry not sorry.
LADY FRIENDS GOING OFF ON ADVENTURES. YES PLEASE. While discussing this with my fellow readers, I called this entire story so far a breath of fresh air for my soul. I hope so hard that it stays feeling this way. But if this opening section of The Tropic of Serpents is anything to go by, there are indeed many miles left on Isabella’s tires – in all the best senses of the term. I’m here for all of it.