Playing a bit of review catch-up today, so here is my take on the second half of The Tropic of Serpents (Parts 3 and 4)! In which: Isabella comes to an important realisation, unburdens herself, and narrowly escapes death a whole bunch of times.
So this is the end of book two, and what’s standing out the most about it to me is the firm sense of direction that’s guiding Marie Brennan’s hand so far. A Natural History of Dragons was the best kind of ‘first book’ because it was full of a sense of wonder and excitement, and all about getting to know Isabella, but in broad strokes; the finer detail can always come later, and that’s something that The Tropic of Serpents does even while it’s taking us somewhere else on the world tour of Isabella’s life. We’re getting to know her better now, and what I appreciate most is that, while I still adore her and I think she’s amazing, Brennan never hides her flaws and Isabella herself is perfectly honest about them. She is MORE amazing, not less, because she feels so real to me.
To expand on that note about the sense of direction these books have, this is especially reassuring coming on the heels of the Temeraire series, which I also started out really enjoying but which lost its way long before the end. That’s a risk in any series, to be fair, but knowing that this series is a short one (only three more books to go, if I’m not mistaken?) is a little bit bittersweet already. I could read these books FOREVER. But if Brennan can maintain this standard all the way, I’ll be more than happy with what we’ve got.
But that’s a note for the future! This review is about The Tropic of Serpents, and I have THINGS TO SAY.
First of all, it’s worth noting that I really enjoyed this book in spite of having some pretty hard aversions/phobias to the, er, wildlife that Isabella has to deal with on her journey through the Green Hell (so very aptly named, by the way). I do not like bugs. Insects, creepy crawly things, bitey things – they make me squirm something fierce. So the fact that I still managed to keep coming back to this book feels sort of like an achievement! And it’s worth it to get to know Isabella better. The standout scene for me, in that regard, was the Moulish ritual scene, in which our heroes unburden themselves, confessional-style, to shake off their bad karma and reset their focus (no, things were not going well in the swamp, why do you ask?). We see everyone involved go through this unburdening process, notably Tom Wilker, Natalie and Isabella herself, and it was so interesting to see a situation that could clearly have led to a much more dramatic and damaging confrontation between them, actually being resolved by sitting down and talking, opening up to each other and admitting their faults without anyone being allowed to judge them.
I just need to sit for a minute here with all the mature adulthood. A+ for resolution, Ms Brennan.
Also. ALSO. Can we just talk about Natalie essentially coming out as asexual, here? It is a hugely important moment, and I absolutely love that her friends hear her out and not a word of “oh, you’ll change your mind when you meet someone” is uttered in response. They’re not there to advise her, they’re only there to listen, and so that is precisely what they do.
Likewise, when Tom admits to professional jealousy/insecurity where Isabella is concerned. This, too, could easily have gone to a place that made me rage – if he had seriously held Isabella’s social status or her friendship and good favour with Lord Hilford against her, I would absolutely think less of him. But he is well aware that these feelings are not altogether rational or fair, and thus he is unburdened and their own friendship survives. In fact, it gets stronger afterward, which pleased me immensely. Even if he also admitted to having no romantic feelings for Isabella whatsoever. She might be relieved; I pouted into my tea somewhat. My shipper’s hopes are dashed!
But you know what? I can live with this. He may stay.
Then there’s Isabella’s own confession, which both tugged on my heartstrings and made me all the more admirable of Brennan’s deft writerly touch. Back in Part One, we saw Isabella’s internal struggle with her relationship with her son; she hasn’t necessarily been a bad mother, but being a mother is an important part of her life and therefore, her memoirs. She is honest about feeling disconnected from her son’s life, and in this scene she dredges up the truth about why she feels this way. Isabella’s passion is for her work, and always has been; the weight of responsibility she feels as a mother is something she resents her son for putting on her. What’s really important to me, here, is that it never becomes about blame; little Jacob is innocent in all this, and Isabella knows that, but her deepest feelings are what they are – and in the end, there is at least a sense that the ritual’s purpose has been served. Having admitted to these feelings, hopefully Isabella can move past them and find her way toward a happier relationship with her son.
All of that, and there’s still high drama!
Rather than simply being about Finding Themselves in the wilderness of Mouleen, this book serves a purpose on a broader, more political scale too. Remember her agreement with the oba, about the dragon eggs? Yeah. Not resolved as simply as anybody expected! (I love that, by the way. Doing merely as she was bid? Isabella surely laughs at such fanciful notions.) Her actions, particularly when she thwarts an invasion attempt by the Ikwunde, prove to be damaging to international relations. Because of course they do. Though all of that comes, naturally, after she literally flings herself into every dangerous aspect of Mouleen’s environment to stop the Ikwunde. Up trees and into rivers and OH GOD ISABELLA MIND THE FANGFISH.
And is she actually thanked? Hell no. Some people are just so damned ungrateful.
Whew. So now she’s going home to Scirland amid more scandal than ever before, and that scandal promises to have consequences that reach much further than just Isabella’s own reputation. As the narrator, Isabella only hints at those consequences here, but it’s enough to make me hungry to know more. I absolutely love the way these books are written and where the story appears to be going, and I need the next one now please.