Lush with details from Chinese folklore, Serpentine tells the coming of age story of Skybright, a young girl who worries about her growing otherness. As she turns sixteen, Skybright notices troubling changes. By day, she is a companion and handmaid to the youngest daughter of a very wealthy family. But nighttime brings with it a darkness that not even daybreak can quell. — [X]
I know I’ve been talking about reading Cindy Pon for years, so I finally shoved my meaninglessly tall TBR pile away from me and read her latest book Serpentine. It’s a pretty big deal. (The book. Not me reading Cindy Pon. Though I am quite angry at myself for not having read her before.) Which is why, I am making today’s post an exception to the monthly theme.
Serpentine is a unique book. The cover– which is competing with the cover of Shadowshaper for my affections– is pretty special on its own. I love that nothing obscures Skybright’s face. She doesn’t look down or away, she isn’t missing part of her head, she isn’t a silhouette, and she isn’t obscured in shadows*. The light shadows that are present on the cover only serve to heighten the mystery of Skybright’s identity. It draws attention to her mismatched eyes and you know she isn’t quite human, nor is she quite monstrous. Look closer at her eyes and you see her determination shine through the cover, up at you. It’s a wonderfully done cover because it says so much about the protagonist, enough to draw you in.
When you start reading, however, you know that you are going to be introduced to Skyrbight all over again and Pon makes it a worthwhile journey. Skybright, an orphaned handmaid who was taken in by the mother of the mistress she serves, is a hard-working, resourceful girl. She is entirely dedicated to her mistress, Zhen Ni. Despite the difference in status, it is clear for anyone to see that Skybright and Zhen Ni are the closest of friends. And this– relationships between women– is what drives the plot and, indeed, what drives Skybright herself into action.
Skybright and Zhen Ni’s trials begin when a seer visits the house and reveals what the future holds for them both. While Zhen Ni chafes against the respectable marriage her mother expects her to make, asking Skybright to hide evidence of her period from the lady of the house, Skybright herself is dealing with something big; Skybright can turn into a serpent. Not completely though. She is a serpent from the waist down, has the heightened senses of a snake, and while she has the serpent’s forked tongue, she cannot speak. In her human form, she finds that she can hear hungry, desperate ghosts and converse with them too. It’s definitely a situation that’s a bit harder to admit to than menstruation. As Skybright’s story progresses– figuring out her powers and how her identity shape-shifts every time her body does– it is clear that both friends are keeping secrets from one another.
And as if this isn’t quite stressful enough, this private drama unfolds against the bigger drama of demons entering the world through a rift. Fortunately, the monks at a nearby monastery are charged with the heavenly duty of keeping the world safe from the demons. Unfortunately, it is a conflict that Skybright herself cannot help but participate in, given that the dreamy, not-quite-a-monk Kai Sen** has thrown himself into the fray.
I say, “cannot help” but really, she can. Choice and identity form the majority of Skybright’s internal conflicts i.e. struggling between things that are fluid and the things that are immutable. Even though Skybright’s struggles are focussed on making sense of how two contradictory identities could exist inside of her, how she sees herself, and how she hopes to regulates how others see her– in an odd way, there is something entirely human and familiar about Skybright’s internal conflict:
There was no use fighting fate, fighting the lot you were given in life. But she refused to be ignorant and helpless, halfling demon or no. — Page 89.
And this is what I love most about Serpentine, it is such a rich fantasy with all the grand elements of fantasy we love but, in the end, it is a meditation on humanity and why the ability to choose is the most basic and the most cherished right of all humans (and some half-humans). I cannot recommend this book enough. Pick it up ASAP.
NOTE: Thank you to Cindy Pon for sending that gorgeous illustration of Zhen Ni and Skybright by Phoenix Lu. Check out the rest of her gallery here.
*Not to knock any of those books. I have read and loved most of them. And I do think their covers are pretty– but they could definitely do better.
**Trust me, I don’t describe many men (fictional or otherwise) as dreamy, but Kai Sen?
D R E A M Y.