The Serpent

Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews The Serpent by Jane Gaskell.

Given my subgeneric interests, it’s surprising I took so long to discover Jane Gaskell’s Atlan books. The Serpent is the first of them, and I just read it in its original US paperback edition (1968), a text which was later broken into two volumes: The Serpent and The Dragon. The novel takes the form of a personal journal kept by the protagonist Cija. She is the “Goddess” of the title for the book as it appeared in German translation: “The Tower of the Goddess.” The tower is left behind in the first chapter, though, and Cija is rarely treated as the goddess that she had been raised to believe herself to be.

The story is set in an antediluvian civilization hostile to “Atlan” (the home of the “Atlanteans”). There are no clear-cut supernatural events in the course of the story, although Cija becomes haunted and eventually undergoes an exorcism of sorts, and there are some uncanny events involving animals. The general tech level is vaguely medieval, but there are large cities and instances of fantastic materials technology.

A notable feature removing Cija’s world from ours is the use of phorusrhacidae (perhaps physornis?) as military mounts–these prehistoric flightless “terror birds” were apex predators, and their domestication for warfare is represented as being a difficult and dodgy business. The military setting is central to the book, as much of it concerns Cija’s travels with the army of the Northern Kingdom, which is under the command of General Zerd, himself the “Serpent” of the title. He seems to be descended on one side from reptilian ancestry, giving him a dark, scaled complexion.

Cija is an evidently reliable if occasionally unlikable narrator. There are some strangely contemporary turns of phrase (“OK” e.g.), for which Gaskell apologies in her introduction. She deploys the documentary conceit and actually claims that the novel is a translation of an ancient document. Still, the voice of the diary manages to project the character writing it, and to ring her through some changes of perspective. Besides Cija’s native culture, from which she had been sheltered by imprisonment in a tower for her entire childhood, she is introduced to at least four further realms over the course of the book, allowing Gaskell ample room for world-building. The filter of the diary format, however, keeps the protagonist’s concerns dominant, with little in the way of heavy-handed exposition about the setting. The preservation of the material diary itself through Cija’s numerous captivities, escapes, flights, and mishaps is maybe the unlikeliest feature of the story! [via]