Review: Serpentine by Cindy Pon

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3 out of 5 snakey stars

Sadly, despite this having a lot of the framework of a good story…. this just didn’t gel for me. There was something about it that just seemed unfinished and unpolished, like reading a first draft, or a 2nd draft that’s had a light edit. And the worse thing, the thing I hate to say because I wanted to love this, it came off as amateurish.

The story is about Starbright, who is a foundling left on the doorstep of a wealthy family. They did what you do when you find a free human being and raised her as a handmaiden for the daughter of the house, Zhen-Ni. A seer is brought in to read the future, as Zhen-Ni is reaching puberty and its about time for her family to sell her into marriage… I mean for her to do her duty and be forced into an arranged marriage… I mean. You know what I mean. Sadly, Zhen-Ni has no wish to do this… and then when Lan comes to stay we find out part of the reason why… Lan is a girl, and basically, spoiler alert, there is a lesbian romance in this. However, that’s Zhen-Ni’s story. Starbright’s is that she seems to be turning into a half woman/half serpent at night time.

Yeah. Wow.

I think one of the main problems hinged on the old writing rule of show, don’t tell. Everything felt like telling, unless it was a description of some architecture or the food. We were told how everyone felt. We were told what was happening. We were told that the monks were fighting. We were told that she turned into a half snake. The one time we aren’t told how Starbright feels I was very confused about how she did feel. I don’t want to spoil it but when she finds out about how two people feel about each other, she’s not very verbal and Pon doesn’t spell it out for us, and I got very frustrated because I wanted to know how she felt, what was going on, why was she acting like this? It seems like the author couldn’t let us know through actions and dialog, she had to spell everything out or you didn’t know what was going on, and dialog and action should inform us not only of what is going on but develop the character.

Another part of that problem was that I felt no connection to the characters at all. They didn’t have a lot of depth to them. Everyone was what you wanted them to be. A boy comes along, Kai Sen, a boy who studies with the monks in the monastery near Starbright’s employer. He is what a boy should be…but has no personality. Come to think of it, neither does Starbright. Nothing about anyone really stands out. The family has very little strife or conflict, so all’s well there. A god shows up. He can do anything. He’s especially good at being enigmatic, which a god should be. I mean, can someone have a personality or be unpleasant or something? Even when Starbright is slightly jealous about Lan’s relationship with Zhen-Ni (I wondered, ooh, does she have feelings for Zhen-Ni beyond being her friend and handmaiden?) but even there, there’s not a lot of conflict.

I had pretty high hopes as this was a fantasy based on Chinese folklore, not just your regular medieval or generic European setting. It is beautifully rich and full of things you expect in a historic, Chinese setting. I think that was the best part – I don’t know what it is about adding food to a story that just adds a layer of reality and makes it more tangible… the different flora and fauna, which I love, the smells and oils and textures are beautifully described. But all the steamed buns and gorgeous settings in the world don’t bring the story together. When Starbright is putting her feet in the dirt of the forest, we get a nuanced, beautiful description. But when she sees her would-be love interest fighting zombie-like hoards the author goes back to telling, things feel very choppy. We aren’t in the moment, we don’t get description that would actually put us there in the story.

The ending made me mad. It came off as either having two many endings, or only being half a book. Something happened, and I thought, oh we gotta get out of this. But then it ended. It felt weird. I couldn’t believe it was over. It was very unsatisfying.

I am going to read the next one. Mostly because I already have it on my Kindle and like I said, this felt like half a book. We’ll see how we go.

 

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