The Tropic Of Serpents: A Memoir By Lady Trent by Marie Brennan (book review).

November 27, 2014 | By | Reply More

Nearly three years after her husband was killed in an expedition to Vystrana, Mrs Isabella Camherst is preparing for another trip, this time to the far-flung continent of Eriga. Needless to say, her mother and the rest of polite Scirland society disapprove, particularly as she plans to leave her young son behind while she gallivants off to remote and dangerous lands with an unmarried man! Of course, Isabella proceeds and takes with her a female assistant, also now a scandal to society, in her search for dragons. Unfortunately, politics keeps getting in the way of her trips and when their party finally manage to enter the swamplands where the dragons dwell, they encounter far more than they’d expected.


‘The Tropic Of Serpents’ is the second book in Marie Brennan’s series of fictional memoirs by Lady Trent, who at this point is known as Isabella Camherst. While the first book, ‘A Natural History of Dragons’, was an enjoyable dragon-filled adventure, I felt that this second book, ‘The Tropic Of Serpents’, lost some of the magic.

I can’t really fault the world-building that Brennan has managed. It’s a complex place filled with different peoples, detailed politics and history and a wide range of natural environments. There’s also clearly been a lot of thought put into the anatomy and physiology of the different dragon species, although this is greatly underused. The characters are ok, but nothing really stands out about them. For example, in both books, Mr. Wilker goes on the expeditions, but I feel like I know nothing about him. I realise that the memoir style necessitates a focus on the character who is writing them, so it’s natural for it to concentrate on Isabella, but it takes out a level of character depth I’d have enjoyed.

Another thing that bothered me about this book (bear with me on this one) was the fact that the world was made up. Yes, I know that’s the point of fantasy, but this felt like an exercise in world-building rather than a story and something I certainly didn’t feel about the first book. I couldn’t help but feel that if the story were set in 19th Century Africa or South America, in a real place with the fantasy element added in on top of that, then it would have been a more satisfying story and much easier to relate to. Instead, there were pages of new names of places, people, flora and fauna that were all unfamiliar and really hard to keep track of at times. I know that would make it a totally different novel but it felt like there was such a lot of effort making sure it wasn’t just the real world in the 1800s. I had real countries in my head for pretty much all the fictional ones and that a lot of other details were forgotten.

It reads like a travelogue, which is fine, but it means the dragons lose out somewhat in this instalment. In fact, there’s scarcely a dragon to be seen for much of the book, which is disappointing, although there is plenty of political manoeuvring to fill in the gaps. Your enjoyment of this book is probably going to hinge on whether you’re reading it for the dragons or simply because you enjoy accompanying the main character on her adventures. I’m part way between the two so there were bits I enjoyed and bits that let me down.

I’m curious to see what happens in the next book, but it won’t be one that jumps straight to the top of my reading pile.

Vinca Russell

November 2014

(pub: TOR/Forge. 331 page small hardback. Price: $25.99 (US), $29.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-3197-7)

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Category: Books, Fantasy, Steampunk

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