Welcome to another session of Turning Pages!
Synopsis: SERPENTINE begins with a familiar feel -- a mistress and a handmaiden, brought up as close friends, often playing games and once spying on the monastery - and a cute monk - which was utterly forbidden. Skybright would do anything for Zhen Ni, but spoiled Zhen Ni often makes thoughtless comments, as if there's no real difference between the two. Skybright, however, can never forget the gulf that lies between them. At least Skybright can dream about the handsome monk she met in the woods, Kai Sen, even though nothing will ever come of that relationship. When Zhen Ni finds love and Skybright's place within her household seems threatened. In time, a secret is revealed: it turns out that all along motherless Skybright was the daughter of someone very important -- except her legacy is not in the human world, but of the mythical Underworld. Now that Skybright knows she's a daughter of the Underworld -- and that her mother was a queen of temptresses - she's not sure who she's supposed to be, and Zhen Ni is discovered to have secrets of her own. As demons and discovery threaten everything Skybright knows, she's backed into a corner of evasions, half-truths, and outright lies, trying to protect herself, and her mistress. Are there any right choices left?
Observations: Readers who enjoy retellings and new spins on mythological tales from other cultures will enjoy this novel. The setting is rich in detail and meaty with diversity. Like many fairytales, there is, from both Skybright and her mistress, a deep longing for something, but instead of that longing being to find a handsome prince or whatnot, their desire is for nothing to change -- to go on as they are, as close as they are. Of course, this doesn't happen - and as a metaphor for growing up, what happens to Skybright seems both monstrous and terrifying but also exciting and freeing - she seems at her most alive and engaged in the novel when she is in the forest, less passive and accepting, and more master of her own fate, which is something which will resonate with American readers. The sensuous language describing Skybright moving through the forest at night also spoke of the potential pleasures to be had when one accepts change and stops fearing it as The End of All Things, which is a great little secondary meaning whether the author intended this to show up in the narrative or not.
I was glad to see that this novel is the first in this series, because there were a lot of unanswered questions for me. SERPENTINE felt short - almost a blur of detail, worldbuilding, set-up and setting with a few teasers waved in front of the reader about the contents of the next book. Readers will easily root for Skybright, worry for Zhen Ni, and wonder what their future holds. Skybright's romantic choices felt a little hurried to me, and readers may not understand her choices. Skybright's tremendous sacrifice at the novel's end, because the ending is a little abrupt, doesn't have quite the sense of momentousness it should have, and we don't get her feelings about her choice - but that just means that readers can't predict, even a little bit, what happens next. Thus we curiously await the sequel...
Conclusion: Though I wasn't as pulled in as I could have been by the passive main character or her romance, there is so much richness that I wanted more time to linger in the fantastic and mythical, mystical world. If you enjoy retellings featuring ancient mythology, gods and demons and want a fresh take on a fantasy tale, you may enjoy this first book in the Kingdom of Xia series.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of the public library. You can find SERPENTINE by Cindy Pon at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!