This was the third time I’ve read this book, and each time I like it a little bit more. I reread it in preparation for the third book, The Voyage of the Basilisk, because for some reason, I haven’t kept current on this series, in spite of the fact that it is one of my favorites on the strength of the first two books. Books 3 & 4 have been released, and the final book in the series, Within the Sanctuary of Wings, is scheduled for release on April 25.
In terms of the the plot, if you plan to read this series, and you haven’t finished book 1, it’s really impossible to discuss this book without spoiling two significant changes in Isabella’s life. When we left her at the end of book 1, she had just returned from Vystrana, after undertaking her first voyage of discovery as a “naturalist.” She returns, not as a wife, but as a widow, Brennan having conveniently disposed of Jacob, her husband. She also returns pregnant. The Tropic of Serpents picks up three years later, after Isabella’s son is born, as she begins to hunger for dragon-based adventures and discovery once again.
This series is actually more about women in science and in public life than it is about dragons. Dragons are the fiction around which Brennan builds her society, which is modeled on our own, late 19th century, world. Isabella’s scientific aptitude, her ambitious, intrepid nature and her unwillingness to be relegated to a traditional female role is the true north of the series. Everything else is an exploration of this – from her unfeminine interest in dragons (as opposed to more socially acceptable interests like horses or dogs) to her lack of interest in maternal things (which is acceptable in ladies only when their interest is diverted by frivolities, like dresses and gossip). Isabella is a deeply substantive woman, in a culture that doesn’t really know what to do with substantive women. And, aside from Lord Hilford, who manages to see her as a fully-realized human being and more than simply a walking womb, the men who surround her really have no idea what to do with her. She is changing the men she encounters as much as she is changing herself.
Reading that Mike Pence refuses to consume a meal alone with a woman peer immediately after reading this book is a disheartening reminder that, while we’ve come a long way baby, we apparently haven’t come far enough, and that there are still plenty of 21st century men who seem to be unable to view women as anything other than an ambulatory, speech-capable vagina.
On this outing, Isabella heads to the fictional Eriga, which seems to be somewhere in Africa, and gets involved in local politics. She manages to muddle about, immerse herself in the local (native) culture, and accomplish a feat of great environmental conservation all the while coping with a culture that is just as skeptical of women who act like men as her own. She plunges headlong into the swamp known as the Green Hell, and learns to fly, both literally and figuratively. We also meet Natalie, another young woman who is entirely disinterested in a typical female life, and I hope to learn more about Natalie in later books.
I am very excited for the Voyage of the Basilisks, as it sounds very much like the trip that Charles Darwin took on the The Beagle, a voyage that has captured my imagination since the moment I heard about it.