Adventures in Reading

The Serpent by Jane Gaskell (1963)
February 7, 2008, 4:44 pm
Filed under: book reviews, fiction
“I can’t see things so well from any other window.”

In retrospect I find it interesting how I was looking for bad science fiction and fantasy. For starters, bad is trite and vague or a meaningless word that is only relative to the user. Additionally, there is “bad” everything that comes out (that is, every genre produces a book that for whatever reason the reader will dislike) but there does seem to be a distinct relationship with “bad” and “fantasy.” If short stories are the bastard siblings of novels then fantasy is often the country yokel relation. Of course this is not entirely true and there are the Tolkiens, the Le Guins, and the Vernes, but I confess that often when a book is stroked with the fantasy brush its popularity level has been capped. [1]

I just finished one of these “bad” fantasy novels: Jane Gaskell’s 1963 novel The Serpent: The Atlan Saga: 1. This was the second random library purchase that I kept. I admit that this quote from a reviewer particularly caught my attention, “Cija [2] is Sissy Spacek playing Scarlett O’Hara… what carries her along, at breakneck speed, are charm, verve, insouciance and a diabolically fertile imagination” – Alice Turner.

The Serpent occurs on a warring continent similar to South America and hostages are taken to ensure the Northern army’s safety while moving south. One of these hostages is our heroine Cija who has been encouraged to meet her destiny by killing the General of the Northern army Zerd. Cija was raised in isolation and as a goddess, and until this expedition she had been informed that all men were dead – a myth. Gaskell wrote the book as a journal Cija maintains and though the format is not as a journal the narrative is presented as such.

Similar to Scarlett, Cija has been raised in luxury and begins the story as a self-absorbed and selfish person. The idea that she had been raised without men smacked of Charlotte Gilman Perkin’s Herland but immediately offered some interesting possibilities. If from a cultural perspective the author argues that women are different when raised with men, such as Perkin’s did, there are many and fascinating avenues that can result from the introduction of men. Unfortunately, Gaskell’s novel seems to be more influenced by knock-offs of shirt shredding B-movie sagas.

While certainly not the only theme or image in the novel, The Serpent is regularly punctuated with women in competition for men, threat of rape, virginal rape, and a specifically disturbing dialog between Cija and her male captor Zerd when he explains shortly after she has been openly molested in a hall that: “‘Women always say that [feel ‘defiled’ after being molested],’ he said, eyeing me ironically, ‘if anything happens to which they haven’t given their permission. Apart from the fact that it’s a very melodramatic word, it’s very conceited of them to think of themselves as so pure and heavenly that a man can defile them by touching them” (169). Rather than standing up against the patriarchy, Cija does little more than giggle and agree to meet Zerd for a sexual rendezvous the following evening.

Gaskell’s The Serpent is an interesting representation of an apocalyptic world suggesting South American mythology. We have a heroine who grows and the story concludes with an additional (though small) plot line exploring and accepting bisexuality and transsexualism. It is an interesting novel and one I neither condemn nor suggest.

[1] Of course one can argue for J.K. Rowling or Neil Gaiman at this point, and these are certainly two popular examples of fantasy authors. However, if you take a stroll through the fantasy and science fiction (for all ages) you will soon see that these are indeed few and far between.

[2] Our heroine and pronounced “Key-a.”

1 Comment

[…] Overall, an okay and entertaining read for a rainy day. I did find this one reminiscent of Jane Gaskell’s The Serpent. […]

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