Book Review: Serpent & Storm by Marella Sands

Certain genres have ‘default’ settings. Noir stories are set in grimy, rainy cities. Space Operas take place (unsurprisingly) in space. Agatha Christie style ‘cozy’ murder mysteries often take place in fancy country estates. And the default Fantasy setting is often a vaguely medieval pastiche that owes more to the local renaissance fair than any actual historical period.

With this in mind, Marella Sands’ Serpent & Storm easily stood out. It’s set in the city of Teotihuacan, a Central American city state that was the largest New World settlement of its era, and arguably one of the biggest cities in the entire world. You could compare it to Ancient Rome, an empire that arose around vaguely the same time period. This setting is the strongest point of Serpent & Stone, as Sands does a great job of portraying Teotihuacan as a bustling metropolitan city, complete with merchants’ guilds, prostitutes, sporting events, and even tour guides.

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Unfortunately, one can’t make a novel work on its setting alone, no matter how meticulously researched. Serpent & Storm is actually a sequel to an earlier book called Sky Knife. Both books center around a Mayan priest by the name of, well, Sky Knife. I haven’t read the first one, but in Serpent & Stone he’s sent to Teotihuacan in order to work out a trade agreement between the two city states. But, within a few chapters of arriving in Teotihuacan, Sky Knife sees their king suddenly drop dead, and it falls on him to find out just who killed him, and why.

One issue I had with Serpent & Storm was that Sky Knife … was kind of a dull character. He spends a good chunk of the novel being scandalized about how Teotihuacans live (sex outside of marriage? GASP!) which … on the one hand is a straightforward enough way to highlight what life and culture in an ancient mesoamerican city might have been like. On the other, this is one of Sky Knife’s major character traits, which gets old really quick. Honestly, Sky Knife is kind of dull– he’s not particularly smart or clever, and his other main trait is his faith in his god Itzamna. Which, again, makes sense for a priest, but it doesn’t make for a compelling character.

Serpent & Storm is listed as ‘Tor Historical Fiction’ on the spine logo, which honestly is a damn lie. Oh sure, it’s set in an actual historical period … but any sense of this is soon forgotten once Sky Knife starts throwing spells around. Because he can do that. He’s even got a magical obsidian dagger called the Hand of God. Sky Knife is basically a D&D style cleric, to the point where he even casts a 1st level ‘Light’ spell while exploring a creepy catacomb. Maybe I should’ve known better (especially since I like Tor books), but at the same time I was a bit blindsided by this. The fact that the back cover blurb tries to sell the book as a murder mystery rather than an ancient world fantasy doesn’t help much, either. And I guess the marketing copy isn’t exactly Sands’ fault.

The thing is, I think Serpent & Storm would have benefited from either excising the magic completely … or just really leaning into it and making it even crazier. As it is, Sands tries to walk a middle line between the two, and it doesn’t quite click either way. I mean, hell, this is a book that features a skinless zombie trying to strangle people with its own intestines, but still tries to play things straight after the occasional detour into splatterpunk horror.

And really, Serpent & Storm isn’t much of a mystery, either. Sky Knife blunders around a bit, talks to some people, finds a conspiracy, and so on … but the ultimate conclusion isn’t satisfying. It doesn’t help that the big final reveal hinges on the culprit being really stupid, either. I’m just saying, if you conspicuously used a feather from your fancy skirt to summon a giant serpent monster, maybe you shouldn’t wear that fancy skirt (now missing a feather) in front of anybody. Just saying.

It probably says something about Serpent & Storm that it features a kaiju-sized flying serpent at one point, and it still comes off as kind of boring. Sigh.

So yeah. Maybe I just didn’t know what to expect, but Serpent & Storm didn’t really impress me. Which is a shame, because it has a really cool, really well researched setting. It’d just be a lot stronger novel if Sands made up her mind whether to write a mystery, or a gonzo fantasy featuring skinless strangler zombies and enormous snake monsters.

Seriously, that cover art would’ve been awesome.

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