Saturday, February 25, 2012
The Serpent by Jane Gaskell
The Serpent by Jane Gaskell is a challenge novel, it's the 4th of the G's. It is the first novel of the author's five volume Atlan Saga.
As a novelist Jane Gaskell had a relatively low profile career. She released her first novel Strange Evil at the age of 16 (it was written when she was 14), it was one of 8 standalone novels and along withe 5 books in the Atlan Saga comprises the sum total of her output. Her last book Sun Bubble came out in 1990. Both China Mieville and John Clute have been very complimentary about Strange Evil. A Sweet, Sweet Summer was awarded the Somerset Maugham award in 1970.
The Serpent came out in 1963. It is the story of Cija (pronounced Key-a), a young woman raised in seclusion to believe that she is a goddess and that men are myths. When her home city (no country, aside from Atlan believed to be the legendary city of Atlantis, is ever named. People either come from the south or the north of the prehistoric South American continent on which the book is set), is conquered by forces loyal to the half lizard commander Zerd, Cija is taken, along with others, as a hostage to ensure her mother; the Dictatresses, good behaviour. The book is written in first person and is Cija's journal as she travels across the continent, mostly with Zerd's army, but at times on her own.
It's an interesting story and written in a quite unusual manner for the time. It's rather hard to really pin down what sort of society and world it's set in. They're not technologically advanced, but they're further along than stone age, they seem to be rather medieval in terms of development, yet Cija's writing seems to suggest a sheltered 19th century European gentlewoman. At times you could be reading the journal of a well bred young woman taken hostage by an tribe of native Americans, or an English gentlewoman captured by a less civilised army somewhere on the frontier.
The main theme of it, for the time it was published, is different. It explores Cija's awakening sexuality and her dealings with various men she encounters. From the savage and powerful Zerd, to the ambitious officer from her own homeland Smahil and the local governor who enslaves and rapes her. She later uses her savage war bird; Ums, to kill the man. Gender confusion is also explored as a theme. In a remote village Cija meets a boy of her own age by the name of Nels, who confesses that he has always felt he should have been born a woman, she later encounters him masquerading as a woman with a powerful man in Zerd's bureaucratic machine. Cija herself pretends to be a boy and has doubts about her own sexuality, occasionally referring to herself in the masculine in her journal.
Despite enjoying The Serpent, and it making me think, I'm not really inclined to continue with the Atlan Saga, I can kind of see where it's going. Cija, having gone from pampered seclusion as a 'goddess' and then having to survive as a hostage, camp follower, slave and fugitive, will eventually rise to supreme power as an empress of sorts. I believe the final book in the series; Some Summer Lands (published in 1977) is from the point of view of Cija's daughter. I presume she is also Smahil's daughter, as The Serpent concludes with Cija and Smahil making love. The other reason I wouldn't continue with the series is that I don't feel Cija is a powerful enough character or narrator to really carry more than one book successfully.
Jane Gaskell did create an interesting prehistoric world, with the giant birds and the civilisation itself. There is even a foreword which talks about the translation of the journal and attempts to provide pseudo scientific explanations for the giant birds and the lizard people, etc...
If anyone did want to read on there are 3 or 4 more (depending on which edition of The Serpent you get) books in the Atlan Saga. I found N.K Jemisin's much discussed and highly regarded Hundred Thousand Kingdoms to be a little similar in theme. The heroine (Yeine) there leaves a sheltered life to become the ruler of her world. Dave Duncan's portal fantasy trilogy; The Great Game, also featured a primitive army that fought on the backs of large ostrich like war birds, he may have been inspired to some extent by the Atlan Saga.