Beautiful Monsters

Jane Gaskell’s The Serpent, the first novel in her witty, occasionally erotic Atlan series, was recommended by Ms. magazine in 1977 as a feminist fantasy novel.

This comical, sexy novel, told in the form of a diary, is a predecessor of the paranormal romance, peopled with blue scaly men instead of vampires.  The lively heroine, a princess who rides a wild, violent bird and sometimes dresses like a boy, has a predilection for monsters.

The Serpent Jane GaskellRaised in a tower and taught that men are extinct,  Cija, a princess addressed as “Goddess,” is confused when her mother, the Dictatress, says she has lied about men to protect her:  a prophecy said that Cija must not come into contact with the world until she was of age.

Cija is exhilarated by the thought of men.

But men are extinct!  Do you mean that there is one alive–a real man–an atavistic throwback or something?”  Was wildly, wildly excited.  Have also always wanted to see a brontosaurus, which Snedde told me are nearly as extinct as men.

Her mother explains that there are men; in fact, more men than women. Now General Zerd, the enemy, has occupied their country and is taking Cija hostage.  She says Cija must assassinate him.

Cija already met General Zerd  when he climbed up the tower and briefly chatted withher:  she thought he was a huge woman with dark blue skin and a deep voice.

Cija rather crossly travels with Zerd’s army, socializes with silly girl hostages and forward young men (she soon gets used to them, though), and is told repeatedly by her nurse Ooldra that she must seduce and then kill Zerd.  Since she never sees Zerd and knows nothing of seduction, it will be difficult.

But we can’t kill beautiful monsters, can we?  Suddenly Cija sees him as he really is.

His chest was bare–and, oh, my unknown Cousin, my own God, the sun struck sparks also from the scales of his chest and arms.  Except in strong light one can mistake him for a man, but now he stood, clearly seen, a monster–and, my God he was beautiful!

(Oh, my unknown Cousin, my own God–and to think people are reading Fifty Shades of Grey!)

The thing about beautiful monsters is that you must look at them.  Once you’ve seen them, It is very difficult not to love them.  You don’t know they’re monsters, if they are monsters, till later.

If I had seen this cover, I could never have bought the book!

If I had seen this cover, I would never have bought the book!

And Zerd finds her very funny, though he is involved with the Beauty (who is really a beauty) and a tribal woman he “marries” so he can travel through foreign territory.

Cija doesn’t like other women much. The female hostages are silly and coquettish; Ooldra, her nurse whom she loves, turns out to be a traitor; and Zerd’s wife beats her.

Men are safer.  They like Cija.  She likes her independence more than romance.  when she is on the lam (she kills a brutal governor), her best friend is Lel, a “transgender” boy (or girl?), who helps her get away from a mob;  later, he establishes himself in the big city as a soldier’s mistress (whether the soldier knows he is a boy isn’t clear to Cija) and saves Cija’s life by pretending she is his brother.  (It’s all a bit confusing:  girls as boys, boys as girls, but you get used to it.)

One of the funniest, most authentic scenes is when she risks her life to save her diary.  She doubles back to the house after escaping from the police.

I could not leave my diary.

This is probably the most stupid thing I have ever done in all my not particularly brilliant life.  For a book, pages between two covers, I stayed behind when I could have run to freedom….  I knew this compulsion was suicide but the Diary is by now my inmost friend, it is almost a sense–and to be severed would have been impossible pain.

Cija’s diary is everything to her.

In science fiction, paranormal romances, and literary fiction, monsters are often more human than the humans.  In Rachel Ingalls’s Mrs. Caliban, the depressed heroine, a housewife, falls in love with an escaped sea monster who may or may not be real. In Peter Hoeg’s The Woman and the Ape, the heroine falls in love with an escaped 300-pound ape.  In Ted Mooney’s Easy Travel to Distant Planets, a marine biologist  falls in love with a dolphin.  In Twilight, Bella falls in love with a vampire.

Jane Gaskell’s The Serpent is charming: Cija is bold, saucy, and self-mocking.  She is one of my favorite heroines of SF/fantasy, and I have very much enjoyed my rereading of this entertaining book.

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