Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Why You Should Read Serpentine by Cindy Pon

Release Date: September 8th, 2015
Published by: Month9Books

Serpentine - Cindy Pon | Goodreads

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.

Y'ALL THIS WAS PUBLISHED today. That means it's time for you to go to a bookstore and buy your copy - or buy it online - and ask your libraries to get copies of this book. This book is really, really good.

Finishing this novel, my first thought was: Cindy Pon is a really talented author. Even in the middle of reading Serpentine, I knew that I would a.) want to return for the sequel and b.) want to read Pon's other novels. In looking up and adding those other novels to my TBR, I discovered that they are also set in the Kingdom of Xia. I love when authors expand on worlds that they have already established with spin-offs.

For the world within Serpentine, Cindy Pon gives plenty of details that create an atmosphere of a distinctly different time and culture and help settle you into her fascinating world. The lush atmosphere is reminiscent of older fantasy narratives. In these narratives, I have never had trouble picturing what the characters were doing - the details of their everyday lives had been mapped out. Pon does this well in Serpentine: you can imagine the food and clothing as well as Skybright as she routinely wakes to help Zhen Liu, her mistress but almost adopted sister. But don't let my praise fool you: though the lush atmosphere is wonderfully established with evocative details, the plot is not bogged down by those details; it's fast-paced and full of action. The plot and atmosphere enhance one another and showcase Pon's beautiful, sweeping writing style.

Atmosphere and culture? Check. World-building? Also check. I do not know much of Chinese folklore and mythology, but what Pon introduced in this novel made me WANT to know so much more. The underworld, Skybright's power, the monastery, and more. The way Pon incorporates these elements is also particularly fresh. This story is about a girl whose life is changed when she comes into an extraordinary power, yet there are no info dumps that I can recall about her power. Everything is smoothly settled into the plot and character development. Skybright is determined enough to take charge of her own destiny, and you as a reader are along for that ride without pause.

Skybright is perhaps what I enjoyed most from Serpentine: her voice is a particular treat to read. I must admit to a personal prejudice when it comes to YA: most of the main characters who are described or praised for being selfless, well, I'm not really sure they are. They seem to be selfless mostly when it comes to showy displays of self-sacrifice. However, Skybright is actually selfless on a day to day basis as a handmaid to her good friend and mistress, Zhen Liu. While many other characters might bemoan the circumstances surrounding their mysterious fate, Skybright learns how to control her power without faltering in her daily duties. Her quiet strength, determination and dedication add an interesting, fresh lens unseen in YA. Fighting otherworldly creatures is portrayed in a distinctive manner for her coming-of-age, as is the evolution of Skybright's friendship with Zhen Liu. If you enjoyed reading about the strong female friendship between Nehemia and Celaena in Throne of Glass, well, this isn't between an assassin and a princess, but Zhen Liu and Skybright are two fierce women in their own right, with an absolutely wonderful bond that is tried but true at its core. At the beginning, Pon discusses how she was inspired by the women in her life. This shows in Serpentine and its heart, the main female friendship and the strong character development for these ladies.

Side characters such as Zhen Liu and Kai Sen are developed alongside Skybright's narrative, with stories of their own. Skybright's romance with Kai Sen is intense and intimate; they discuss their lives on a deeper level, and their kisses are imbued with a charged edge because of that emotional connection. If you enjoyed the way the romance was handled in The Hero and The Crown, I believe that you will also enjoy the romance in Serpentine. I am also partly reminded of how the main character in that novel goes off to fight dragons and no one believes that she can until she brings back proof. For all the limitations of Skybright's power, she too is a force to be reckoned with, and others would do well not to underestimate her.

When I first read Serpentine, I wondered why Kristin Cashore was quoted on the cover - because she's the current face of YA high fantasy or because of a specific element? For all that I love Cashore's novels, hers can be considered slow to start. Serpentine is not only shorter than one of Cashore's novels, but it's also paced much quicker (though perhaps those two are not exclusive). But the more I considered the novels, the clearer it became. In Graceling, Cashore discusses the idea of what makes a monster, and Fire's power can be seen as an extended metaphor. Likewise, Skybright considers her transformative power in terms of self-identity, and it can serve as a very discussable metaphor for what the synopsis terms as "her growing otherness." Not only does Serpentine feature a wonderful main female friendship, sweet romance, lush setting, and significant growth for the main character, but it also has an innately discussable premise. This is the kind of book that I wish I could have read when I was growing up, and am glad that I got to read even now.

Don't let my comparisons fool you either: I have not read anything like Serpentine. I've added in comparisons with the hope that they will make you more likely to pick up this novel. Once you start Serpentine, you won't want to stop (I definitely finished it in one sitting...). In short, if you like young adult fantasy novels or coming-of-age fantasy novels, BUY THIS BOOK.

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