We were first introduced to Isabella Camherst in A Natural History of Dragons: she’s a young woman from Scirling (a place very similar to our Victorian England) whose dream is to travel the world and study dragons. In this second book of the series, which is framed like a volume of memoirs written much later in her life, Isabella tells the story of her expedition to the tropical continent of Eriga, to study arboreal tree snakes and swamp-wyrms. I had been waiting for this book ever since I finished the previous one, and I’m happy to say that it didn’t disappoint. If anything, I found this book to be even better than the first. Isabella’s expedition is plagued by accidents and unexpected events, and that made for a quick pace; there was hardly a dull moment in the book. I was halfway into the book and planned to read “just one more chapter” and then it was 3am and I had finished reading. It was that kind of book.
The location was, I thought, one of the main characters of the book. Marie Brennan described the swamp of Mouleen so vividly that I could forget it’s not a real place, I think this is quickly becoming one of my favourite fantasy world. The downside was that sometimes there was too much detail, all the names of places thrown around felt unnecessary and I had to read some passages twice or thrice to figure out which place was what, or give up and hope it wasn’t something vital to the plot. Still, once I figured out which people lived where and who was at war with them, the geographical and political background for the various people living in the area was neat. The customs of the Erigan people were described in great detail, but that happened bit by bit as Isabella and her companions found out about them, so it never felt as if we were getting an info dump just for the sake of an info dump; it all tied into the story and explained the characters’ decisions. Like with the previous book, there are black and white drawings here and there that are meant to be viewed as some of the sketches that Isabella made during the journey. They are really gorgeous and help establish the setting: it’s fantasy and there are dragons, but we’re firmly on the side of magical realism, and the dragons are really just a large and rather interesting predator species.
I really liked the bits about exploring and adventuring. I enjoy reading about real world naturalists and explorers like Charles Darwin and Alexander Humboldt, but it’s the first time I come across such an interesting fictional naturalist. Isabella is stubborn and headstrong and extremely passionate about her work, and I can’t help but root for her. Without spoiling anything, I felt that after the events of the first book she really matured: she still has a lot to go before becoming a world-famous naturalist, but now I can sort of see the path that she might take. I’m disappointed that Natalie and Mr. Wilker sometimes seemed to vanish in the background, but in hindsight it would make sense for Isabella to focus on the animals around her rather than her human companions, since being a naturalist is her defining character trait.
Overall, a great continuation to a great series and a must-read for me. I’m already looking forward to reading the next book and wondering where Isabella will end up next. Authors, this is how you hook readers: not with stupid cliffhangers, but with good writing, compelling plots, character growth, and a few mysteries here and there. (But what was that stone with the ancient carvings? I want to know!)