Book review: Sacrifice, by Cindy Pon

Cindy Pon is among my favourite Chinese-American authors writing right now, and the Serpentine/Sacrifice duology is one reason why. These are smart, fun, wonderful, excellent books that explore Chinese folklore, culture, and history in a fantastical setting, weaving the threads of lots of storytelling traditions together. If you haven’t read either book, get on it, and start following Cindy Pon, because she’s the greatest (and not just because she constantly taunts me with scallion pancakes).

Sacrifice picks up where Serpentine leaves off, with Skybright beginning to explore her identity and true self as a girl who is not quite what she seems, while her former mistress and close friend is betrothed to a mysterious lord who is also not what he seems. Together, the two have to figure out how to save the world and rebuild their lives, and while the story alone is fun times with interesting twists, there are some other things about Sacrifice that are even more exciting.

The first is Pon’s integration of Chinese folklore, history, and culture throughout the work. She brings in myths and legends from a variety of eras in Chinese history and pulls them together really beautifully to tell a story that is rich in tradition with every page: I read so many Western fairytale retellings and stories integrating Western mythology that it is a really nice break to take a trip to China with Pon and explore the rich storytelling history of another culture. It left me wanting to read a lot more about some of the creatures and traditions I encountered, which is the mark of well-done fiction, to my eye.

I also really appreciate Pon’s attention to detail when it comes to building and fleshing out the world around Skybright, from the structures to the clothes to the food. I think most authors don’t spend nearly enough time showing us what characters are eating and how it’s prepared, and I love that food plays such an important role here, signaling not just that people are eating, but sending subtle messages about season, class, economic conditions, setting, and time. Pay attention to what her characters are eating, because it will tell you a lot about who they are, and why they are doing whatever it is they are doing. That said, don’t read this book on an empty stomach, or you will regret your life choices.

But where I get really excited about Sacrifice is in the core journey of its main character. I’ve been thinking a lot about embracing the monstrous this year, and what it means to identify your monstrous self and actively integrate it into your identity rather than fearing or trying to hide it. I’ve also been exploring what it means to be monstrous, how social perceptions shape the monsters around us, how we create and feed our own monsters.

This is a book about a woman who discovers she’s not human when she finds out that she can shift forms, from an ordinary person to one with the lower body of a serpent. At first she is terrified and horrified by this, rejecting this part of herself, disgusted by it. Over the course of Sacrifice, though, she has time to explore herself and think about the body she is living in. Her understanding of her body and her identity shifts. She comes to embrace the monstrous, even as the people around her remain uneasy and uncertain about how to act around her — she is no longer one of them. Her lack of interest in performing or pretending for people who don’t like seeing her serpentine self, her glorious serpent coil with glossy scales and powerful muscles, is something that clearly unsettles and sometimes even upsets other characters.

There are a lot of metaphors bound up in Skybright’s identity and the fact that as young women come of age and grow into themselves, they face tremendous pressure to conform, especially when they refuse to reject the parts of themselves that society finds ugly or scary. For Skybright, the journey from fearing herself to embracing herself, and feeling utterly comfortable shifting and being in her serpent body even when other people are not, is huge. It’s a big character journey for her, but it’s also one for young people reading — most of them likely aren’t coping with the discovery that their lower halves can turn into serpents, but they’re dealing with other things. They’re facing hair in places society tells them it’s not supposed to be. They’re menstruating. Their bodies are fundamentally changing all around them, and in some cases, it feels like a tremendous betrayal — this is not the way it is supposed to be.

To take that and use it, to take control of the monstrous and use it as a form of empowerment, is a huge thing, and something that takes decades of work. It’s something that’s even more complicated for some than for others — for trans youth, for example, those changes aren’t just something that society wants to punish them for, but something that causes intense dysphoria and distress. Many of those trans youth are also being called monstrous and abhorrent for having bodies and identities that do not match what society expects of them, are faced, like Skybright, with staying in the bodies they were born with and pleasing others, or transitioning to embrace the bodies that make them feel alive and whole.

Pon leaves a lot of these things open-ended for the reader, allowing you to project your own sense and experience of the monstrous onto the story, but the takeaway remains the same: Ain’t nothin’ wrong with being a monster.