In the second part of The Tropic of Serpents, the ladies deal with mundane matters – and malaria – and Isabella meets the oba of Bayembe. Spoilers below!
The first thing I need to note about Part 2 of this book is that it does several things – all related to the plot beats I noted above – that I don’t often see done in stories, but would dearly love to see done more often. So let’s talk about those things.
First of all, the ‘mundane matters’. It’s probably one of the things a lot of women question regarding stories where an adventurous young lady, or ladies, take their adventurous selves off somewhere on a long journey or expedition like this: how do they deal with the inevitable interruption that occurs when their period arrives? Isabella and Natalie both have to deal with this interruption, and Marie Brennan is very clever about using it as a means of giving us more interesting information and keeping the potential for intrigue stoked, while at the same time not really making a big deal about it at all. Certainly the servants on hand to assist them do; a woman’s monthly courses are an occasion for seclusion, because this particular natural biological cycle makes a woman ‘unclean’ and until it’s over, she must be kept apart from any others whom she may taint, so to speak. The only people she can socialise with in that time are any other women experiencing their own courses. I was worried, when I realised how Isabella’s period arriving would be viewed, that this would be used to beat the old “women are dirty” drum, but thankfully not! For all that it makes her servants cautious of her (they refuse to touch her even while they’re assisting her), nothing is held against Isabella herself for the need to be cautious. Her ‘condition’ may be unclean (and to be fair, that’s not exactly wrong, in a literal sense…), but needs must, and so no one actually treats her badly because of it.
Take a politically aware moment with that.
Then, there’s the case of malaria that nearly does for Natalie, and I don’t mind telling you this made me nervous all over again. Surely she wasn’t going to exit the stage at this early point, in a story where so much unashamed light is being cast on her friendship with Isabella and the importance of such things? But I had no need to fear; far from fridging our Nat, Brennan not only lets her live but brings her quickly back to recovery and bouncing back, refusing to sit out the rest of the expedition even when the news that her father has written to the oba of Bayembe to demand that she be returned home. Bloody Lord Denbow, again!
So from that sly jab at another potential victimisation/undermining of a female character, we get to Isabella’s first meeting with her host – the most powerful man in Bayembe, and the one with the particular power to enable or hobble Natalie’s intention to remain with the expedition. He has to decide whether or not to send her back as per her father’s request, and following his meeting with Isabella, it all comes down to a very clever, very polite but still pretty ruthlessly delivered choice: he needs a party willing to go into the Moulish swamps and bring him back a swamp dragon, and with political tensions being what they are, the expedition’s academic cause makes them the most trustworthy party to ask. If Isabella agrees, he’ll let Natalie stay. If she doesn’t, Natalie goes home. So what it really comes down to, in the end, is how willing Isabella will be to give up her truest, closest friend – not only among the expedition team, but in her life as a whole – for the sake of continuing with their plans.
Yeah, the answer to that is about what I expected. I LOVE THESE TWO LADIES AND THEIR FRIENDSHIP AND HOW DARE LORD DENBOW. HOW DARE HE.
Also, for all of that intimate character drama, I want to highlight that none of it made me think poorly of Ankumata, the oba. Through Isabella’s description and her observations of him, we learn that he’s a man who has not only lived with a disability (he has to wear metal braces on both legs in order to walk), but has turned that potential weakness into a strength – rather than hiding it out of shame, he dresses in such a way that the braces are impossible to miss. He’s a proud man, and from his conversation with Isabella we get to see that he’s a potentially ruthless, but not a dismissive or unfair one. He has no personal interest in obstructing the expedition; in fact, Isabella’s studies fascinate him. Yes, he’s perfectly willing to exploit her position to get something he wants, hence the ultimatum, but even Isabella can see that none of it is personal. He never resorts to threats of that nature; he simply states his intentions and his desires, and lets her decide what’s more important to her. He’s a very, very interesting man and rather than wanting to punch him, I’m actually hoping we get to see more of him!
That said, if ANY harm comes to the dragon (if Isabella manages to bring one back), all bets are off. Swamp dragons may not be the pretty ones but they’re still dragons, and I’m sure Isabella feels the same way…