Saturday, August 9, 2014

Dragon Summer: Guest Post & Review: The Tropic of Serpents by Marie Brennan

 

 

 

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I was so excited to learn that the memoirs of Lady Trent would continue in The Tropic of Serpents. In this second memoir we learn that three years have passed since Isabella’s last exciting, yet also tragic adventure. Yet permanent  reclusiveness is not in the cards for Lady Trent. She once again joins and expedition, this time to the continent of Eriga and its exotic draconian species.

Lady Trent’s journey is fraught with many dangers both personal and environmental, yet Isabella manage to push forward due to her strong determination and mental acumen. This book is a dragon lovers dream . Todd Lockwood’s interior illustrations continue to be a wonderful component to the book, especially with the more vicious breeds the party encounters.

I really love Lady Trent’s narrative voice especially when she is in the midst of scientific observation. A wonderful read!

Today I also have a post from Marie on Dragon Culture and how she developed the interpersonal interactions of the Dragons amongst themselves and others. Enjoy!

 

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Dragon Culture

Like many a fantasy nerd before me, I'm interested in the question of what dragons would be like if they were real. Is there a way they could fly? How about breathing fire? What would they eat?

But if you want to know the truth -- the deep, terrible, not actually remotely surprising for anybody who knows me truth -- those issues aren't the ones that interest me the most. What I like to play with is the question that comes next: <i>And what would we do if they were?</i>

How would we react? I'm not talking about we-the-nerds, the people who grew up on books with dragons in them, suddenly facing creatures that were supposed to be only fantasy. I'm talking about we-the-people of this hypothetical world, the one in which dragons are a part of our environment. There are various subfields of anthropology that look at how human societies interact with the natural world -- they go by names like "cultural ecology" or "ecological anthropology" -- because you can't separate people from their environment. What we do affects the natural world, and vice versa. Dragons would leave a mark on us, and we on them.

(And no, I'm not just talking about the tooth marks when they chew on us.)

Would it be a respectful relationship? Human beings have a long history of venerating animals as spiritual forces or representatives thereof, especially the big, impressive predators. (Dragons and tigers and bears, oh my.) Or would we be hostile toward them? Wolves often have a bad rap in Western culture because they preyed on livestock, threatening the livelihood of farmers and ranchers. Given that I'm not sure I've ever seen an herbivorous dragon in fiction, they would be chowing down on a <i>lot</i> of critters, some of which might belong to people. What qualities would dragons represent in symbolic terms? Folklore variously paints them as wise, patient, wrathful, greedy -- and that's just for a start. Or would they just be nuisances, ground under the wheels of human progress, not missed until they're nearly gone?

There's no single answer to this question, because if there's one thing the human species is good at, it's coming up with every answer you can think of and then some. But one of my favorite aspects of writing the Memoirs of Lady Trent is playing with some of the possibilities. Isabella is mostly interested in the biological reality of dragons -- how they fly, how their extraordinary breath operates, what they eat, and so on -- but her author, being an anthropologist at heart, enjoys looking beyond that to what dragons mean in a human context.

Whether it's Vystrani shepherds complaining about dragons eating their sheep or Moulish hunter-gatherers incorporating dragons in a story about original sin, ancient civilizations focusing all their reverence on the creatures or modern hunters looking to profit from them, powerful people leveraging them for decoration or defense or display, all of these and more . . . the one thing humans in Isabella's world don't do to dragons is ignore them. And though Isabella herself may not be consciously aware of it, the human side is part and parcel of what she's studying. If we adapt to dragons, they adapt right back -- by attacking, or making their lairs in remote areas, or gravitating toward settlements in order to nosh on those all-you-can-eat buffets we call "herds." The behaviors she observes don't happen in a vacuum, untouched by human activity. (Postmodernism has not yet happened in Isabella's world, so there aren't any theorists wandering around pointing out that scientific observation is not free from observer bias and influence.)

For someone like me, with a background in anthropology, that kind of thing is narrative catnip. If my dragons were sentient, I would be inventing their culture -- or rather, several different cultures -- and cackling all the way, but in the absence of that, this is my playground. Fantasy worlds where strange creatures exist only for the purpose of being fought are boring to me. I want the whole picture, from dragon-influenced religion to dragon-based slang.

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