Content warnings: Rape, emotional abuse, abuse, violence, etc.
This is a feminist novel par excellence: the Serpent is a novel exploring the growth of a girl into a woman in a land that views women as possessions. It attempts to sell itself as a vivid adventure story, and it is that, but it’s more – Cija’s biography, and her long journey to attempt to find a home, stability and safety.
The book takes place in the first person POV, and it presents itself as the written diary of the protagonist. This is a delightful conceit, as while it’s not precisely the most natural diary, it lends a personal flourish to Cija. The way she writes out her encounters, and the detail she gives them (less or more) lends insight into who she is.
The plot: Cija has been raised in a tower for seventeen years and taught that she’s a Goddess, and that men are extinct. Almost immediately in the novel this is revealed to be false: she’s traded to a foreign General as a hostage (surprise, it’s a dude!) and so she’s thrust into society in a strange, precarious social situation. She’s ordered by her mother to seduce and murder this General, and this drives the plot for at least half of the novel – Cija’s attempts to seduce him (boy, is she naive about it) and her back and forth over if she can kill him.
What you quickly learn is that this isn’t a typical novel, with a straightforward plot. Instead, it’s a biography. It covers the slice of life of Cija’s life, and the episodes of excitement. How she befriends and makes enemies of her fellow hostages, what she does later on when she’s not with the army, etc. Things do not stay still for long at any given time – the army is moving, and when she’s without it she’s on the move.
Before I proceed, I need to emphasize: this is a feminist novel. Not merely because of its insightful look into a heroine, but because of how she does so dang much within the strictures of her life. Her life is constant social mobility through the grace of others, and so much of that is propelled by her manipulation (intended or not) of others. She moves from hostage to a lady’s servant. She moves from servant to captive slave, from slave to wanderer, from wanderer to soup-cooker, and on and on. Her life is a whirlwind and it rarely feels like she’s in control of it or where it’s going – bad things happen to her, as do good things (but alas, not in equal measure for a long time.) A lot of the novel is her coping with this and learning to be better about controlling her destiny. (If I have to explain how this is feminist – society is not kind, and lord, if Cija had acted like a man – well. She learns how to do that, in part. But it’s about learning when it’s safe to do that, and when it’s safe to be a woman.)
I need to make it clear how deeply unpleasant this book can be: Cija is raped multiple times throughout the book. Men treat her like a possession, and at times she wants it and other times she doesn’t. She grows and learns how to handle this emotionally. The first rape is probably the worst, because it came from a man she thought was her friend – and she protects him, afterwards.
But to this book’s credit, it always, always treats this subject maturely. It’s never for the sake of shocking the reader, it’s because – again, this reads like a biography. This is what happens to Cija, because her world is cruel and unfair and she does her best within it.
I spent a lot of this book in dread of reading on, because I knew it would be awful, when it came. But I plunged on, and between the tragedies good things happened, and when good things didn’t happen insightful things happened, that made me think and feel. A collection: Cija rescues a priest from being sentenced to death, and in the process saves a bandit. Cija becomes soup-maker for the General’s wife while she’s pregnant, and learns the pulse of a city. Cija spends weeks in the wilderness alone but for her wild bird-mount, and the description of the wilds are vivid. There is a magical white puma, perhaps.
The birds, the birds in this book are great. They’re based off of real dinosaur-esque birds that really existed! Like giant ostriches, but rideable and with great fluffy necks and curved beaks. Cija gets her own bird, and he’s a major character for a lot of the novel. Ums is big and one-eyed and black feathered and violent and yet he loves Cija completely. Why yes, he’s thematically appropriate.
Cija meets a transgender woman named Lel, who suffers because in her small farming community they of course don’t accept this. Cija – unfortunately she never changes her pronouns in her diary concerning Lel, but she befriends and understands Lel quite well – it’s honestly a touching and as accurate a portrayal of gender dysphoria you could get from someone writing in the 1960s.
Another note: Cija spends a lot of time at the bottom of society, befriending the poorest and weakest. She’s kind, and naive, and she learns a lot from them and I love this – how she never becomes quite a wilting noblewoman. In the sequence where she literally is a wilting noblewoman in a Court, she befriends a prisoner. Even at the top she finds the bottom and has – empathy for whoever’s down there.
A nasty note: there is a sequence that I hate. It’s one of the lowest points in the book: Cija gets captured by someone she once trusted, and he treats her literally as a possession. He rapes her, owns her, and she’s so depressed at this point that – I don’t want to say she lets it happen. He’s stronger than her, and things are very bad for her. You may see other reviewers misreading the book and claiming that he’s her “lover” – no. It’s an accurate portrayal of emotional abuse mixed with rape, and it sucks. It’s very well-written. I promise she escapes him, and gets a chance to reject him once and for all later.
So, so so: the Serpent keeps twisting in my mind, because it’s violent and awful but it’s so vivid, with so many interesting encounters and developments. And it has a mostly happy ending, even!
I really don’t know if I could recommend it, but… I don’t know. I love it. I never want to read it again, and I don’t know if I have the stomach for the sequels, what with Cija ending up in a good place and the sequels promising more wild adventures.
If you want to read vivid, pulpy fantasy set in a prehistoric world, this is your book. Read carefully, however!