I’m making a conscious effort this year to read books by authors of color, and so one of the first places I turned to find new ones was the Diversity in YA blog. I was excited to see that Cindy Pon, one of the co-founders of the site, had just published a new book called Serpentine. I’d read and enjoyed Pon’s Phoenix duology several years ago, and I was eager to read another installment set in Pon’s China-based fantasy land of Xia.
Unfortunately, Serpentine ended up being an object lesson in the idea that a book can be everything you hope for from a diversity standpoint and still remain unsatisfying.
Spoilers for Serpentine below the jump.
While Serpentine is set in the same fantasy land as the Phoenix books, there’s really no foreknowledge necessary for this book. Rather than continuing Ai Ling’s story, Serpentine follows Skybright, a handmaiden in a wealthy household. She’s essentially best friends with Zhen Ni, the young mistress she serves, but she is forced to start keeping secrets from her when Skybright discovers she’s not entirely human. While Zhen Ni worries about getting her period and the betrothal talks that will follow, Skybright is dealing with the realization that she’s part serpent demon, and can transform her lower half into a powerful serpentine tail. And to make matters worse, the veil between the human and spirit worlds is lifting, and demons are flooding into Xia from the other side. Skybright must decide whether she holds any allegiance to her natural heritage, or whether she wants to side with and defend the humans she acknowledges as her family. Emblematic of this choice are her two suitors: a young monk-in-training named Kai Sen, who goes out to do battle against the demons every night, and Stone, a mysterious and powerful being who leads the demonic forces.
While Skybright struggles with the supernatural and her feelings, Zhen Ni ends up getting her first crush—on Lan, a visiting daughter of a lesser noble house. When her mother discovers them together, she casts Lan out and severely punishes Zhen Ni. Hurt and angry, Zhen Ni runs away to go after Lan—in the middle of the peak of the demon incursion. Skybright abandons everything to go after her mistress, but the forces behind the war between human and demonkind have more complicated plans in store for her.
The story certainly had its strengths, both from a storytelling and representation standpoint. One particular thing I liked was that Skybright struggled at first with her powers, and, knowing that she had to master them or be discovered, actually practiced using them. Usually stories with powered protagonists that aren’t set in, like, a magic school, skip over this part of the narrative, but the story had Skybright going out specifically to test her powers and practice using her transformation effectively.
From a representation standpoint, Serpentine is a big win. As the story is set in Xia, everything is based on Chinese culture, and that suffuses the narrative. From the monastery to the Chinese styles of demons to the aspects of ancestor worship that are tied in, there’s no shortage of cultural representation in the story. Furthermore, Zhen Ni and Lan’s relationship may be a flash-in-the-pan teen romance, but the story acknowledges this without invalidating the nature of their same-sex attraction.
Serpentine has a cast and setting that represents Asian culture; it has a female protagonist who comes into her magical power with practical ease; it acknowledges that teens can be and are sexually active; it has queer representation on top of all that—so why didn’t I love it?
First of all, I didn’t love Skybright’s romance options. Her dalliance with Kai Sen is kickstarted by a stereotypical, Cosette-and-Marius-esque glance-from-afar, and I never quite bought it. Meanwhile, the mysterious Stone was a little too mysterious, and his power imbalance compared to Skybright’s was off-putting. He was both stronger than her physically and magically, and he had information about her mother, a notorious serpent demon, that gave him another edge over her. Honestly, I thought Skybright had better chemistry and a more equal and meaningful relationship with Zhen Ni herself, even given that they were master and servant, than with either of the guys she courted. While it’s great to have enough women in a story that we get a wlw romance and a strong female friendship at the same time, the poor characterization of the other characters and relationships left them with the sole well-written bond.
Finally, the plot, its conflict, and its conclusion were all kind of subpar. Stone is constantly trying to seduce Skybright to take her “rightful” place on the side of the demons, but besides the fact that she was part demon, there didn’t seem to be any reason why she’d want to. There was no reveal that the demons were misunderstood or subjugated; they were just evil. There didn’t seem to be any nuance to the demon versus human war that would justifiably tempt Skybright to their side. I learned after finishing the book that Serpentine is meant to be the first book in a series, so perhaps there will be more clarification and nuance in the next book. I just wish that the first book had lived up to my expectations a bit more.