Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Book Review: Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan

Pros: fun, witty storytelling; engaging and diverse characters, interesting politics, Todd Lockwood artwork


This is the second volume of Lady Isabella Trent’s memoir regarding the study of dragons.  Despite the dangerous political situation in the Talu Union, she requests permission for herself and two companions to visit Bayembe and the Mouleen swamps in order to study the various dragon species found there.

These ‘memoirs’ are such a joy to read.  This is a character driven novel, told from a lady’s point of view.  And that lady refuses to adhere to society’s norms when it comes to what women are and are not allowed to do in scholarly pursuits.  But this isn’t a simple story.  There’s a lot of character development as she’s forced to adapt to the customs of the different peoples she meets and come to terms with things in her past.  

This series takes place in an imaginary world that has similarities to Earth in the 1800s.  While the three protagonists are Scirling (analogous to colonial Britain), there are several natives of different tribes (patterned after African tribes) who play important roles in the book.  Each tribe has different political goals, religious beliefs, customs, clothing, skin tones and languages.  They all feel intrinsically real.  I especially loved that the king of Bayembe had prosthesis that allowed him to walk and was seen as a powerful figure, whose ‘iron’ legs made him more than human. 

There’s a decent amount of politics involved, and while it’s not dwelt on heavily, it’s necessary as the climax hinges on what the wider world is up to while her party is trying not to die of malaria and yellow fever in the swamps.  Even beyond the military and economic politics are the more subtle politics of life, for example, Isabella isn’t allowed to join a scientific symposium because of her gender while one of her companions on the trek is barred from the same symposium because he’s not of a high enough social class.  Similarly, her second companion on the trip has to defy her father, who wants her to stay home and get married rather than ruin herself on this expedition.   

In addition to the cover, Todd Lockwood has a series of illustrations peppering the novel itself.  These are done sketchbook style and really add to the atmosphere of the book as well as your ability to visualise what’s happening.  

If you like fun, witty storytelling that’s quick to read and thoughtful about representing diversity, then pick this up.

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