Book Review: The Serpent Papers

Thursday 15 January 2015 by

The Serpent Papers, Quercus, Book, Jessica CornwellThe Serpent Papers by Jessica Cornwell

Published by Quercus

Publishes 29th January 2015

Book I

It was hidden.

Now it’s hunted.

Reading it will change everything.

Anna Verco – academic, book thief, savant – unearths letters hidden for centuries in a lightning-struck chapel. What they reveal drives her to Barcelona to investigate a famous unsolved murder. As police bait her with suspects, and threats darken her steps, Anna hunts her own prey – the book that began it all, a medieval revelation written in the language of witches: The Serpent Papers.

Anna believes this book will unlock the mystery. She does not yet know she is the key.

~*~

As a bit of a welcoming gift to becoming part of the Curtis Brown Book Group, I was sent a rather lovely package of three books. The first of which I picked up to read was the first in a trilogy; The Serpent Papers by Jessica Cornwell.

The Serpent Papers tells the story of Anna as she works for the mysterious Picatrix organisation as they hunt for a palimpsest that claims to be the book of alchemy and witchcraft. Her investigation takes her to Mallorca and Barcelona, where she travels in the footsteps of the murdered actress, Natalia Hernandez and the brutal killings of three other girls. The killings, and Natalia, promise to lead them straight to the palimpsest, and it is Anna’s particular psychic abilities that will help her get there.

Think of this book as a better (much better) version of The Da Vinci Code, filled with religious fervour, mysterious writings, and magical promises. It is a scrambled collection of letters, first-person narrative, third-person reminiscences, and ancient poetry and prophecy. If you can keep up with the leaping around, you will do fine. And Anna is a pretty good protagonist – strong, with a vulnerability that makes her appealing. She cleverly avoids the tropes of Damsel in Distress and Mary-Sue, traversing a line between the two that makes her feel grounded amongst the mystery.

The writing is fast-paced – clipped sentences and dashing scenes, all done with snapshot energy. You see through Anna’s eyes – absorbing her surroundings, assessing them, and duelling with new characters in real-time speed. It’s a clever tool that keeps the story fresh and engaging throughout and never makes you feel like it has a lull. Although the descriptive passages could have been trimmed further, nothing feels out of place, and the flashbacks (although lurching back and forth is at first a bit bewildering) are gracefully executed.

There is a strong impression of food. Food (and coffee) feature heavily in almost every scene, with the characters reflected in their eating choices. Anna’s character has the clean sharpness of fresh herbs, balanced with the earthy comfort of tapas, whilst a fat priest she meets nervously gulps down churros with chocolate. Of all the uses of setting, the food was perhaps my favourite – there was no need for long descriptions of the characters, you simply describe what they eat, and the reader instantly knows. Plus, it made me crave tapas! (Fair warning: don’t read this book hungry)

This is a perfect standalone book, with a neat finish, only adding a final few paragraphs to turn over to book two (as yet unannounced). In a way, I didn’t like this springboard; it would have been nice to keep each book as an individual piece, but simply returning to Anna each time. But it felt natural, and it certainly made me check for book two online!

As a final thumbs-down, I also didn’t feel the relationship between Francesc and Anna was all that genuine; it was too easy for her to leave him at the beginning, and he barely features until the last few pages. Perhaps it is Anna’s introspective nature that leaves Francesc out in the cold, but there is something almost unnecessary about him, as if he is superfluous to the plot. Anna is a powerful character in her own right, and although Fabregat helps her, you know she can almost do this all herself. It’s a refreshing feeling, and it would have been nice to keep her solo. Perhaps there is more to come on that front? (Fabregat, by the way, has to be one of my favourite characters of the whole book).

As a debut novel, this has all the fizz of enthusiasm and talent, without falling in to the trap of over-exertion. Nothing is added that isn’t tied up, nothing is done to prove a literary point or show off a writerly skill. It feels contained and neat, with a genuine love for Barcelona and the characters overflowing from the pages (I only wish I had been to Barcelona before reading it – in that respect it reminds me of The Shadow of the Wind). To begin your writing career with a trilogy could be dismissed as overly-ambitious, but Cornwell has steel and focus, which should only turn out good books. And with Anna at the helm, the Serpent Papers trilogy could be the start of something beautiful.

I would not have thought to pick this book up had I simply been browsing, but you often stumble across gems in mysterious ways, and this is a deeply satisfactory discovery. Cornwell’s writing is brisk and unafraid, a refreshing no-nonsense approach after several books that risk being limp and nervous. Her writing hovers a line between magical realism, mystery and suspense, (again reminding me of Shadow). A refreshing, snappy read.

Advanced copy, courtesy of Curtis Brown Book Group

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