Note: This review is part of the 2016 Summer Reading Diversity Spotlight.
Serpentine by Cindy Pon
Release Date: September 8, 2015
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
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SERPENTINE is a sweeping fantasy set in the ancient Kingdom of Xia and inspired by the rich history of Chinese mythology.
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.
When her plight can no longer be denied, Skybright learns that despite a dark destiny, she must struggle to retain her sense of self – even as she falls in love for the first time.
Serpentine had been on my radar for awhile and wow. This is one of those books I’m upset that I waited so long to read. This was fantastic.
When the story begins, we get a good feel for Skybright’s life as handmaid (aka servant) to Zhen Ni, the youngest daughter in the Yuan home. I loved how this dynamic set up for the rest of the book. Zhen Ni considers Skybright like a sister since Skybright has been with the family her entire life, the two have never spent a day apart and bonded on a level that’s not so typical given the power dynamic here.
That said, while Skybright is treated very well as a handmaid, she’s still a handmaid. And that fact is made even more clear to her when Zhen Ni has her friend, Lan over for an extended visit. I really loved the dynamics here. Skybright is threatened by Lan because if Lan is more of a companion than Skybright could ever be, Sky really could just be knocked down to just the handmaid that she’s always been. Zhen Ni assures her that this isn’t the case and it’s up to Sky to accept this truth, what’s as close to unconditional love as Zhen Ni can provide to her. Sisterhood for the win! But change is intimidating and Sky’s emotions about the situation are not assured easily and do not become level overnight which was heartwarming to see because it was so tender and realistic in its approach. I really appreciated this so much.
A moment on Zhen Ni’s relationship with Lan. Because Zhen Ni comes from a wealthy, respectable family, she’s expected to marry off shortly after she “comes into womanhood” aka gets her period. Well, Zhen Ni gets her period but she is in love with a girl and that girl’s name is Lan. You don’t have to imagine how this goes over with her mother because it happens in the book.
In all of this, I love that Zhen Ni fights every step of the way for happiness instead of accepting what she “must” do, accepting her “duty” as a female in her position. Zhen Ni knows her worth in the position that she’s in and she also knows what’s worth fighting for – her own peace of mind. She doesn’t apologize for liking Lan and she does all that she can to find her way back to her. She defies society’s standards and that is beautiful. I loved it.
Zhen Ni and Lan and aren’t the only two cozying up. Sky finds herself in quite a timid romance between a young man she meets in the forest, Kai Sen and I say timid because Sky has enough going on without adding a romance into the mix. Needless to say, she’s hesitant to fully committing to Kai Sen. To trusting him fully. To defying society’s standards when she’s already stuck between a rock and a hard place – being a handmaid who can never marry and having the newfound secret that she can shape shift into a serpentine and is a demon.
There’s a lot on Sky’s shoulders and I really enjoyed watching the weight slowly get heavier and heavier and see how she handled it all. The story flowed seamlessly as Sky and Kai Sen tried to figure out what their differences to the rest of the world meant for them especially during a time when the door to the underworld was open.
And then the story really picked up as Zhen Ni left her home without telling anyone after a certain incident involving Lan. So Sky must not only figure out how to embrace her serpentine side but figure out what her role is in closing the door between the human world and the underworld, as well as search for Zhen Ni since ultimately, Zhen Ni is her responsibility and without Zhen Ni, Sky believes she doesn’t have a place in the Yuan home. It’s a lot but as the reader, it never feels like the journey is overwhelming. This isn’t easy to do so bravo for the wonderful pacing and layering here.
I also really enjoyed the setting, the world building, and the Chinese mythology that breathed life into all of the above. I’m not as familiar with the Chinese mythology that this story was inspired by as I should be and I’m inspired now more than ever to do my research and learn more. Also, I can’t remember the last time I read a fantasy that wasn’t inspired by European mythology so refreshing is putting it lightly. Talk about a winner.
Serpentine is such a riveting tale about secrets and sacrifice and stepping away from society’s standards to embrace all that we are and all that we have to offer. It’s a thought provoking tale about what happens when people aren’t given a chance to show that they’re against the grain and on your side, what happens when people are punished for being against the grain. It’s quite a dance on both sides of the floor, that’s for sure. Serpentine is a fully immersive reading experience, so grab your snacks and prepare to sit down with this baby until you reach the very end.
Serpentine by Cindy Pon is available today.