A lush portrayal of life in the ancient Kingdom of Xia and inspired by the rich history of Chinese mythology, this sweeping fantasy tells a coming of age story of a girl who worries about the startling changes in her body. Sixteen-year-old Skybright, a companion and handmaid to the youngest daughter of a wealthy family experiences a growing otherness so troubling, she will risk everything to conceal her dark secret from everyone, including the boy she’s falling in love with.
I’m a sucker when it comes to folklore, so when I saw this one was pulling from Chinese folklore I hoped on the wagon really quick. Chinese folklore is a hard thing to come by in American YA, especially Chinese folklore by a Chinese American. So I walked in with high hopes that were not really met.
Let me elaborate. Serpentine had a lot going for it from the start. It has a cool setup, cool idea, cool characters, and come on now we have description of periods! That’s an awesome thing to see and have addressed. (In fact my theory is that the entire book is just one big puberty metaphor, but let’s chalk that up to me being an English major for now.) Let’s also not forget two of the greatest things! Lesbians and sex scenes. The woman who Skybright serves, Zhen Ni, falls in love with another girl named Lan. Their relationship is described with all the flourish heterosexual romances receive in other YA novels, so it was very refreshing to see. There’s even a scene between them where Skybright walks in. No don’t worry, it’s tastefully done so that you won’t be scared forever. But that isn’t the only sex scene! Skybright and her love interest Kai Sen have one as well that is handled in very much the same way. I enjoyed having both of these because not only is sex talked about in a YA book (spoiler alert, young adults/teenagers have sex) but it’s done so in a non-awkward way that presents how real sex is.
However, you can’t have cool things and not pace out your plot, which is where Cindy Pon lost some of her momentum. You go from dealing with the main character, Skybright (hell of a name), transforming into a half serpent creature to suddenly having ghosts pop up and start making demands of her. A lot of the plot feels forced and rushed throughout the novel, and not a lot seems to make sense. Skybright comes into her powers suddenly, and she and the audience are left very much in the dark about what she is and what she can do for the entirety of the piece. The ghosts mentioned above don’t even really play a role in the story. There’s a breech in the underworld that just appears, a betrayal from an abbot that’s never introduced in person until his betrayal, and a lot of battles with demons and legions of the undead, but all of these occurrences don’t come with a lot of explanation. Instead they just kind of happen to happen, and feel very convenient for moving plot along instead of serving actual purpose.
Speaking of convenient things, as much as I appreciated the representation given by their sex scene the Kai/Skybright match didn’t work for me. It felt too rushed and too unreal; convenient. They meet the first time by meeting gazes over a long distance while Skybright is in a tree. They meet a second time while Skybright is doing chores and speak for a few moments. They meet the third time and start kissing each other. This was all by page 64 of 275. I am so, so tired of all this heterosexual nonsense. A lot of Kai’s character felt unnecessary. His convenient clairvoyance for instance that was never really explained but always helped him find Skybright? His constant appearance in demon battles even when Skybright was traveling towns away to find her mistress? This kid was everywhere, and his and Skybright’s interactions were always cute but seemingly unnecessary to the plot.
The other issues I had both dealt with description. First off, if you’re going to have magic in a story it does you well to explain it, give your readers the rules to it because even magic has limits. Do this especially if your protagonist has magic. Magic is never really explained in Serpentine. Skybright has magic, obviously, but what are her limitations? She can control the undead with her thoughts? The answer is yes, but the only explanation given is that they once followed her mysterious mother. How could she control them? A lot is left unexplained, which may be because this is book one of a series, who knows? The other description issue I saw (besides the glaring editing issue on pg 154) was the lack of it. Pon is a descriptive writer. She just describes her character’s emotions and thoughts much more than the world around them. I felt lost, like I was watching players on a stage with some scenery rather than a full production. I think more time turned to the setting could have helped immerse me in the world a little more.
All in all, I wasn’t as disappointed in Serpentine as I was afraid I would be I the first 90 pages. While I feel like it could be improved I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from reading it. I will look for more of Cindy Pon’s work and see how her writing improves with her work. So to wrap up, I’d recommend this book with a hard maybe.