Hugo reading 2018: The Tropic of Serpents, by Marie Brennan

I read A Natural History of Dragons, by Marie Brennan, several years ago, and liked it quite a bit, but not enough to seek out the sequels.  I sort of half-remembered it, but not well enough to review it, so I decided to read the second book in the series, The Tropic of Serpents, for the purpose of the Best Series Nomination.

For those who don’t know this series, it’s pretty delightful.  Each volume is one of the memoirs of Isabella, Lady Trent, a naturalist who specialised in dragons, and travelled the globe to study them in a time when ladies were not encouraged to do such things.

Lady Trent lives in Scirland, which is clearly a parallel to Victorian England.  She is bookish from a child, and fascinated by dragons.  Her mother is unsympathetic, but her father, rather endearingly, makes a list of potential husbands who will let her share their libraries, and she eventually marries Jacob and goes on her first adventure with him.

This is the story of her second adventure, and it’s difficult to discuss without revealing a major spoiler from her first one.  But I will do my best.

Isabella clearly carries the story.  She is clearly writing these memoirs some years after the fact, and is old enough to be free of any embarrassment or shame about her youthful adventures – and it is doubtful if she ever had very much, despite the feelings of Society on the matter.  She is a scientist first and foremost; her narrative is straightforward and she does not shy away from improper topics, though she is aware that her audience might do so.  Her studies take her to other continents (her first adventure appears to be in an alternate Arabia; her second is, I think, somewhere pseudo-African and equatorial), and she deals with the people and their cultures in an equally straightforward fashion – she may not believe what they believe, but cooperating with their cultural mores is generally a good way to get what one wants in the long run, and so she does.  Her memoirs are thus as much anthropological as they are biological.

They are also adventure stories, because seeking out dragons to study is a decidedly hazardous proposition.  Lady Trent frequently finds herself in countries where she speaks the language only partially, negotiating customs that are unfamiliar and uncomfortable, and dealing with terrain that is a hazard in itself – on top of avoiding the diseases which so often strike Scirlanders when they travel to the tropics, and the Extraordinary Breath and claws of the dragons themselves.  And the odd hippopotamus, hostile tribe, or dangerous ritual.

These books are rather lovely to read.  The Victorian styling feels very thoroughly considered (right down to the unfortunate colonial aspirations and assumptions of many characters in the novels), and the dragon biology and life cycles are well thought out.  I think the fact that I enjoy them so much, then walk away from them and forget about them for years suggests that they don’t belong quite at the top of my ballot.  At the moment, the Five Gods books are unbeatable (and probably will be for many years – I really think they are the best fantasy series out there, but we’ll get to that review in a bit), but I’m struggling with where to place this in relation to The Divine Cities, which were excellent, and Seanan McGuire’s Incryptid Books, which I have read all of and enjoy very much.  It’s difficult to judge a series where you have read all the books against a series where you have only read one or two of them…

I think I need to reread the first InCryptid book as well as the last short story that I haven’t read in order to decide this category.  I’ll review the Bujold tomorrow.

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