Book review: Serpentine, by Cindy Pon

What would happen if you woke up one morning and your lower body had come over a bit snaky? That’s the question behind SerpentineCindy Pon’s latest, due out in September (the above photo is, as you might have gathered, an advance copy — the real cover is much cooler). You’re going to want to read it if one or more of the following applies to you: 1) You like books. 2) You like good books. 3) You like fantasy. 4) You like Chinese folklore. 5) You like supporting diverse books and authors. 6) You believe that diverse books should be supported on their own merit as great books, rather than pro forma simply because they tick off checkboxes. If none of the above apply to you, I’m not sure why you’re reading this website, honestly.

Skybright is a handmaid in a wealthy family, one that’s raised her since childhood after she was found as an infant. Her mistress may treat her as a beloved companion, but Skybright is acutely aware of the class and status divide between them, knowing that she will always be a servant and her mistress will always be in charge. When she turns 16, though, things start to shift as she meets a young man associated with a monastery and a young woman arrives to keep her mistress company.

That’s not the half of it, though, because she starts waking up in the middle of the night with the lower body of a serpent. At first she thinks it’s a nightmare, but it quickly becomes apparent that there’s a serpentine part of herself that’s coming out, and she needs to figure out what’s going on and how it relates to who she is, and who she wants to be. The problem is really compounded when she does her research and learns about evil serpent demons who appear as temptresses by day and monsters by night; Skybright fears that she’s become something terrible and she doesn’t know why, or how to stop it.

As we already know from Silver PhoenixPon is highly skilled at creating meticulous worlds. The Kingdom of Xia draws from Chinese history and folklore, creating a very richly-imagined fantasy universe without anachronisms and flaws that might jar the reader from the text. Pon’s fantasy skills are equally compelling, as she weaves fascinating tales with really distinctive and delightful characters that are continually full of surprises and sharp social commentaries — but this isn’t what her books are about, and she firmly roots her storytelling in the narrative, not making pointed comments from the reader.

Serpentine is set in the same world, exploring new aspects of the Kingdom of Xia and providing us with additions to an existing cast of characters. I love to see authors playing around with the worlds they’ve invented while taking us off into the worlds of new characters; it can be intensely boring to sit around watching the same six people over and over again in a series, but it’s great to bounce around getting glimpses into lots of lives and lots of places. For writers, it’s very freeing, as it provides opportunities to explore aspects of a world that might remain hidden or irrelevant to the casts of characters in other texts (for example, a story set in a rural region lets us see the day to day lives of manual labourers who grow the food and raise the animals eaten by upper class people in other stories).

In the case of Serpentine, there are all sorts of layers going on. There’s a love story, but it’s entangled in a mystery as well as difficult choices. Furthermore, it raises some key questions about monstrosity, assumptions, and what really makes people who they are. Pon challenges the notion that people are innately evil or compelled to do terrible things, and, by extension, the idea that people can be uniformly good without the ability to engage in acts of cruelty and destruction. Skybright has to determine her own identity and future, a theme that really resonates with young readers who are making very similar decisions as they face down their futures.

Maybe they don’t need to ask themselves what to do with serpents’ tails, but there’s a clear metaphor here for young women in terms of developing new and unexpected traits in puberty, some of which are as confusing and stressful as Skybright’s tail. What do you do when it feels like your body is betraying you and it feels like you have no control, and when it’s contributing to the way other people interact with you and treat you? These aren’t things limited to fictional landscapes, and they’re challenging questions in an era when young women and girls are treated like garbage and confined to narrow social roles that don’t permit diversity and a range of identities.

This book isn’t just joining a canon of diverse books to put on your shelf and feel good about. It’s joining a canon of coming of age stories that use striking characters and creative metaphor to draw out the aging experience, while integrating the author’s own cultural background, history, and experience. One of the things that makes Serpentine so elegant and compelling is the integration of tiny details — like brush paintings, one of Pon’s pursuits — that create a realistic and living world, one that seems almost touchable from the page. It’s a definite must-add to your shelf, so look out for it this September!