Review Copy: Serpent on a Cross

Note: I received a digital copy of Serpent on a Cross from the publisher for review consideration.

Book Review: Serpent on a Cross #spon | Newbery and Beyond
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How I have dreaded writing this review.  Before I begin, here is the summary from Goodreads:

Dennah Dubrovnika is a formidable hunter and talented healer. However, she cannot control her own powers, which have suddenly reawakened in the aftermath of her mother’s violent capture by a powerful warlord who destroyed their village in his wake. As she races to free her mother, Dennah is accompanied by Jeth, the man she loves. But she’s increasingly, inexorably drawn to the mysterious Skallon, who is allied with her greatest enemy.

I really had high hopes for this book, that although fantasy is not usually my thing (sorry, LOTR fans!), this book would be an unusual take on the usual medieval fantasy tropes.  But it was not to be.  I found this book confusing and boring, and if I hadn’t already agreed to read and review it, I would have set it down after the first chapter.

This book is set to be the first in a series, and it definitely shows.  This book was mostly back story, starting with Dennah’s very young childhood, when she was first discovering her powers and still living happily with both parents.  Shortly after the story begins, however, Tarkan comes in, forcing Dennah and her mother, Althea, to flee.  Tarkan, it turns out, is Althea’s father (and although Dennah is shocked by this later in the book, I’m pretty sure the readers know it from the beginning), and he is collecting people with powers for a reason that I can’t remember being explained.  Althea takes Dennah to a nearby village, where she casts a spell to make Dennah forget her powers, and they live for several years as healers of the village.

This led to my first problem with the book–the setting.  Serpent on a Cross is a fantasy about Jewish magic in medieval Eastern Europe and Russia.  I was extremely confused by this, probably because I know nothing about Jewish magic and mysticism (who knew such a thing even existed? she said naively), and very little about Russia during medieval times.  There is also a mix of Hebrew/Yiddish and Russian words, and if there’s one thing I hate, it’s a book that needs a glossary.  Maybe I’m just lazy, but I find it very confusing, and I don’t like to be drawn out of the story in order to flip to the back of the book and look up a word.

Eventually, Tarkan invades the village in which Althea and Dennah have taken refuge.  Althea is captured, and Dennah breaks the spell and starts to remember her powers.  She and a few friends from the village who have survived decide to try to rescue Althea, and they set off, meeting up with friends and foes along the way, most importantly, Miraum.  As they travel, they have to fight off enemies and keep discord from dividing the group.  I had a real problem with the way sexuality was discussed throughout this section and the book as a whole.  The raping of women by Tarkan’s men is described, not in detail, but enough to make me squirm and feel a little sick.  A strange, sexual dream is described, in which Dennah finds herself drawn to Skallon, one of Tarkan’s affiliates, which also made me kind of uncomfortable.  There’s also a subtle sexism throughout, which I’m sure is time period appropriate, but it still didn’t make me feel very fond of the book.  Scenes like these are the main reason I filed this book under “Adult Fiction” instead of “YA Fiction.”

My favorite character in this book was Miraum, or basically, the Baba Yaga!  Maybe I just have a weakness for stories about the Baba Yaga, but I found Miraum an interesting character, and I wished there was more about her in this book.  She helped Althea develop her powers, and she also starts to help Dennah do the same.  Which brings me to another complaint–why are their powers so needlessly confusing?  Basically, the work like ribbons (?), which I thought was interesting, but a bit odd, as you have to use your metaphysical hands to entwine the ribbons and allow them to work in harmony.  Also, each person with powers has two ribbons–one for the dark side of their power, and the other for the light side.  However, the dark-colored ribbon represents the light side of the power, and the light-colored ribbon represents the dark side.  Why?  Why make this so complicated?  Another also–Dennah has a combination of emerald and moonstone, which stand for wisdom and manipulation.  This combination has never been seen before, and everyone is shocked at her powers–she has a bit of the “Chosen One” syndrome.

After Dennah spends a bit of time in Miraum’s house, honing her skills, they set off once again to fight Tarkan.  They do reach him, but that’s basically the end.  I felt a little cheated after reading for so long through something I disliked that there was no big payoff.  It’s very clear that this book is just a set up for a series, which I really think could be interesting, but I doubt I’ll pick up the next book to find out.

Honestly, I don’t think I was the right audience for this book, as I generally have little patience for battles, books without even a hint of comedy, subtle sexism (even in the name of historical accuracy) and not-so-subtle rapes, convoluted rules about magic powers, and glossaries.  But–and I hate to say this when someone has been so kind as to send me a copy of their book for review–I don’t think this book was very good, either.  That’s why I’ve been putting off this review for so long–it pains me to say I disliked something when I know the person who created it will probably find out.  But this is my honest review: Unless you’re really into fantasy, or have a lot more patience than I do with the genre’s quirks, let this one go.

Rating: Skip This One

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