(Review by Ronni Phillips)
Adolescence is hard enough without the lower half of your body transforming into that of a snake every month. That is what happens to Skybright, the heroine of Cindy Pon’s young adult novel Serpentine. Although Skybright shares a close friendship with Zhen Ni, the noble girl for whom she is a handmaid, Skybright keeps this terrifying change a secret, afraid she will be cast out of the only home she has ever known. As Skybright struggles to control these monthly transformations – which affect her human mind as well as her body – she becomes caught up in the machinations of the demonic inhabitants of the underworld, as well as the warrior monks who battle to keep this supernatural threat at bay. Serpentine is set in Xia, the Chinese-inflected fantasy world in which Pon’s earlier books Silver Phoenix and Fury of the Phoenix were also set, and Pon has drawn on Chinese mythology for the backdrop to this emotionally intense story, intended as the first of a series.
At the heart of Serpentine is the sister-like relationship between Zhen Ni and Skybright, a friendship which gives the story much of its emotional weight. The arrival of Lan, the daughter of a family friend of Zhen Ni’s mother, causes ruptures in the girls’ friendship, as Skybright struggles to accept having to share Zhen Ni’s attention and affection. Both Zhen Ni and Skybright carry secrets they feel they cannot share with one another, and the burden of this secrecy casts a further pall on their friendship. Skybright’s growing feelings for Kai Sen, a warrior-in-training who helps the monks in their fight against demonic forces, are simply another thing she feels she must keep secret from Zhen Ni. At the same time, the relationship between Skybright and Kai Sen is far from the only complicated, fraught romance to blossom over the course of the story. Pon should be commended for including non-heterosexual relationships alongside the central boy-meets-girl pairing of Kai Sen and Skybright, and for writing such relationships without heartbreak or tragedy.
Serpentine is very much the first book in a series, ending on a cliffhanger, and with Skybright at something of an emotional crossroads. It is a young-adult coming of age tale brimming with empathy and compassion for its characters, told with warmth and understanding. A word of warning: read this book with a plate of snacks to hand, as Pon’s extensive descriptions of the delicious food her characters eat will otherwise cause intense hunger!