Book Review: Serpentine by Philip Pullman

Serpentine by Philip Pullman book cover to illustration a book review

It was never in doubt that we would buy Serpentine by Philip Pullman. We’ve been fans of the His Dark Materials series ever since it was first published so have collected most of the books, including various different editions. I even have a signed poster of the first movie version of The Golden Compass (which I kind of liked even though it got terrible reviews).

I love the way that Pullman combines traditional fantasy tropes with psychological and societal reflection. Deceptively simple, his words go much deeper than the surface story and that’s absolutely the case with Serpentine. In fact, I think you can only really enjoy this particular book if you’re aware of the subtext, because without it, the narrative may feel fairly sparse. The tale happens after the events of the original trilogy and before The Book of Dust so you’re likely to get a lot more out of the book if you’ve read the full series.

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Synopsis

‘Lyra Silvertongue, you’re very welcome . . . Yes, I know your new name. Serafina Pekkala told me everything about your exploits’

Lyra and her daemon Pantalaimon have left the events of His Dark Materials far behind.

In this snapshot of their forever-changed lives they return to the North to visit an old friend, where we will learn that things are not exactly as they seem . . .

Daemons

As I’ve read more books in the series, I’ve become more interested by the relationship between the characters and their talking animal counterparts, the daemons, which are manifestations of their inner selves. They aren’t supposed to separate, but Lyra is forced to do this in The Amber Spyglass and the resulting lack of communication between herself, and her daemon, Pantalaimon, has a negative impact on her mental health. Serpentine focuses on how Lyra tries to come to terms with this disconnect while on an archeological dig in the Arctic.

The exchanges between Lyra and Pantalaimon are so real that I forgot to see them as the same person, but re-reading, you see one mind at work. This is the beauty of Serpentine. It is short enough for you to contemplate the intricacy of the human thought process – and sets the ground for future conflict.

Trollesund – a damaged setting

Pullman sets the short story in Trollesund, where Lyra first met Iorek Byrnison and Lee Scoresby in Northern Lights. We learn that the ice melted in the area when Lord Asriel opened the portal to the other world revealing the remains of an ancient settlement. The archeological ruins don’t play a huge part in Serpentine (only as a plot device) but the theme of climate change aligns with the narrative to a certain degree. Dr Lanselius, Lyra’s acquaintance remarks that “Things are returning to normal.” with the advent of snow. The world is healing, just as Lyra is starting to rebuild her relationship with Pantalaimon. Every time you read Serpentine, you see new clues and parallels.

Tom Duxbury’s Illustrations

It’s impossible to write a review of Serpentine without mentioning Tom Duxbury’s startling lino-prints. These form a significant part of the book and depict the tale beautifully – tying in with the woodcut aesthetic that runs through Pullman’s work. There is a sense of real movement in the prints, and the contrasting black and white line art highlights the duality in the His Dark Materials universe – making this an artwork in itself. You can buy Tom Duxbury’s prints here.

We’re excited about this new addition to our Pullman collection and thoroughly recommend it for people who love to immerse themselves in the His Dark Materials world. However, I’m not sure how well this would translate for someone who’s new to Lyra’s journey. Although there is lots to analyse, it’s more of meditation than a full-blown story and there are a number of unanswered questions. Be prepared to drill deep to get the most out of this curious little episode.

  • Publisher: Penguin
  • Publication Date: 15 October 2020
  • Format: Hardback
  • ISBN: 9780241475249
  • Number of pages: 80

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