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The Tropic of Serpents: A Memoir by Lady Trent, by Marie Brennan

Review copy provided by author, who is also a personal friend under another name.

The Victorian naturalist’s memoir is in my opinion an untapped gold mine for fabulists, and Marie Brennan does the genre well. I would love to see more of this sort of thing in fantasy: the secondary world, the functioning and creatures not the same as ours, but treated with the same attitudes and approach as in that era of our history. Or an earlier one: a Linnaeus of a fantasy land would be like catnip to me.

Lady Isabella returns here from her adventures in A Natural History of Dragons, which volume I think would be helpful but not necessary to appreciating the events of the current one. In this installment, she has come through early widowhood, pregnancy, and her son’s infancy, is now a published naturalist, and is ready to face new challenges with new companions, all of whom come with challenges of their own (none of which are allowed to overtake the story’s momentum). The set of dragons and near-dragons this particular expedition is investigating is located in a jungle known as the Green Hell, on a continent seemingly inspired by our world’s Africa. Unlike most fantasy scenarios, this inspiration involves awareness that African cultures are far from being monolithic. There are three imagined Erigan cultures in this volume alone, and our heroine, while being far from a modern enlightened thinker at points, has some level of exasperation for her own compatriots for treating the continent as a monolith. It’s a fine line to walk, taking inspiration from a colonialist era, and I think Brennan does it extremely well, especially with a later ceremony that would be a major plot spoiler.

The thoughts on colonialism are mostly a background process. The foreground is adventures with dragons and their investigation, with progress towards a more modern scientific attitude juxtaposed with (literally) high-flying feats. No one becomes a dragon rider here. They don’t have to. There are plenty of life cycles, breeding grounds, and fanged things sinking their teeth in at inopportune moments without anyone having to stick an apostrophe in their name for fun. Highly recommended.

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