Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book at ALA Annual 2015. All quotes are based on an uncorrected text.
“Was this what growing up, becoming a woman, meant? To show only certain, acceptable sides of yourself to others, even to those you love?”
Skybright has served the Yuan family all her life, ever since she was left on their doorstep as a baby. She has been a handmaid and companion to Zhen Ni, the Yuan’s youngest daughter, since her birth. They are as close as sisters, though their relationship has been complicated by their differing social status. On the cusp of womanhood, their lives are about to change dramatically, as Zhen Ni will soon be married to a man of her parents’ choosing. And as the Festival of Ghosts approaches, opening a breach between the worlds, Skybright discovers her own change when she awakens one night to find she has transformed into the serpent demon of myth from the waist down. Keeping a secret from Zhen Ni for the first time, Skybright grapples with her demonic heritage even as a battle between demons and mortals begins sweeping across the Kingdom of Xia.
Inspired by Chinese mythology, Serpentine is set against a rich backdrop, but the core of the story is about female friendship. Skybright and Zhen Ni have been together day and night all their lives, made both intimate and disparate by their mistress-servant relationship. Skybright bathes and dresses Zhen Ni, but they also play games together, concoct schemes, and keep one another’s secrets. Skybright helps Zhen Ni hide that fact that she has officially entered womanhood from her mother, buying her a few more months of precious freedom before she will be wed. But however close they have always been, Skybright continues to hide her demonic side, sure that no one, not even Zhen Ni, will be able to accept it.
In addition to new secrets, Zhen Ni and Skybright find their long friendship complicated by new relationships. Intrigued by a young man who is studying at a nearby monastery, Skybright begins sneaking out to meet him, drawn by both Kai Sen himself, and his access to the information about demons in the monastery’s library. Meanwhile, Zhen Ni has formed an intense new friendship with Lan, who is visiting the Yuans for the summer, and Skybright finds herself become jealous of her mistress’s new companion.
Cindy Pon’s writing style is straight-forward and the story moves along quickly. Though the interpersonal relationships take centre stage for much of the tale, there is also a good amount of action as the monks do battle with the demons who have slipped through the breach between the worlds. An additional element of mystery is present in the in the figure of Stone, an immortal who seems to hold the answers for many of Skybright’s questions about her newly discovered demonic heritage. The great world and characters shine beyond the plain writing that conveys them.
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