In The Tropic of Serpents, a Naturalist Studies Dragons and Politics

One of the many pleasures of reading a Marie Brennan novel is that a swashbuckling quest to find dragon eggs in the tropics is never just that. It is also a complicated political story of colonial incursion and ecosystems in peril. Welcome back to the world of Lady Trent, a naturalist with a dragon obsession.

The Memoirs of Lady Trent novels are set on an alternate Earth whose draconian fauna differ from ours, but whose cultural preoccupations are instantly recognizable. In A Natural History of Dragons, the first in trilogy, we followed the young Isabella Trent through a land very much like nineteenth century Russia. There she made discoveries that catapulted her into scientific notoriety as one of the few women of her day who could participate in naturalism. Now, in The Tropic of Serpents, a wiser (but no less reckless) Isabella travels to a region very much like eastern coastal Africa in search of the elusive swamp wyrms.

Along the way, Isabella expands the phylogeny of dragons to include sea serpents — long believed to be unrelated to their land counterparts — and struggles to prove her worth as a scientist. But she also realizes that science always goes hand-in-hand with politics. There are the politics that keep her and her working-class colleague Tom out of scientific societies. And then there are the politics that allow Isabella's home country of Scirland to build forts and dams in distant Bayembe, where a powerful tribe has formed a rather unequal trade relationship with Scirland's merchant class.

To make her incredible scientific discoveries, Isabella has to navigate carefully around two warring tribes in Bayembe, as well as a jungle tribe that is trying to maintain a nomadic way of life as their neighbors modernize. Though this book is in the same "science adventure" genre as Raiders of the Lost Ark, its characters are never cartoons and the science feels almost contemporary. Isabella worries that the dam that Scirland wants to build will drain the jungle of its water, destroying the tribes and dragons who live there. And, like Dian Fossey in Africa, she considers poachers her greatest enemy.

Smart and nuanced, The Tropic of Serpents is also a witty romp and a soap opera. We hear about how Isabella is portrayed in the gossip sheets, and there is enormous family drama when a young engineer named Natalie flees her family to accompany Isabella on the expedition. Though sometimes the politics draw us too far away from the dragon science we crave, the novel is overwhelmingly fun and a perfectly delightful summer read.