Serpent on a Cross by Wendy C. Garfinkle

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About Serpant on a Cross (from Amazon):

In a world filled with magic, Dennah Dubrovnika is a very special child with unimaginable power, but power comes at a price and there are those who would stop at nothing to obtain the power she possesses.

A formidable hunter and talented healer, Dennah struggles to control her powers, which have reawakened in the aftermath of her mother’s violent capture by a powerful warlord who destroyed their village in his wake. But she’s increasingly, inexorably drawn to the mysterious Skallon who is allied with her greatest enemy.

Will Dennah be able to gain a measure of control over her magic or will she lose everything and everyone she loves to its raging inferno?

The first installment in a Jewish fantasy adventure series set in Medieval Eastern Europe, Serpent on a Cross is an enchanting journey into the unique.

About Wendy C. Garfinkle (from Amazon):

Wendy C. Garfinkle was born and raised in South Florida. She moved to Northwest Texas in her early 20s, but returned to South Florida eight years later. She holds five degrees, including MA and MFA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. She’s a poet, reading addict, and collector of interesting clothing tags, which she recycles into bookmarks. She has served as a copy editor and reader for Hippocampus Magazine, an online nonfiction lit journal, and as a reader for the James Jones First Novel Fellowship. Wendy is a crime analyst for a local law enforcement agency, and lives with her teenage son. To see what Wendy is currently working on, visit her at wendycgarfinkle.com.

You can also connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

My Review:

Back in my undergrad days, I took a course called Gender and Sexuality in the Horror Film. It was great – we analyzed the symbolism of The Other in horror film, carefully hidden in plain sight by those sneaky filmmakers. Anyway, one night, my professor Skyped in one of the directors whose film we had watched, and we got to ask him intelligent-sounding questions about the symbolism in his film. Then, get this: the director denied any such symbolism in his film. Psh. Cretin.

Anyway, it’s the reason why when the grandmother in Joyce Carol Oates’ Bellefleur castrates her hermaphrodite grandchild, and people keep disappearing, I was like, “Oh, this is about the decline of patriarchy.” And the attempt to restore it, I think.

It’s also the reason I might assign non-existent meaning to Serpent on a Cross by Wendy C. Garfinkle. Apologies to the author if this happens. Please direct blame to Dr. Harry M. Benshoff of The University of North Texas Radio, Television, and Film Department.

So, without further ado…

Set in Medieval Russia, Serpent on a Cross reads like a historical account of the tensions between Christians and Jews with fantasy elements.

There are a lot of relationships I’m still struggling to understand, such as the Power to the mages and the mages to the Elementals and the Elementals to the Power. It is clear, however, that the ability to harness weather is fiercely sought as a means to control people, especially the hated Jews. Being Jewish and powerful weather magi, Dennah, her mother, and grandmother are hunted by men who wish to possess them and their power throughout the story.  The well-intentioned men who take it upon themselves to protect them often misunderstand them, and fear them as a result.

It’s actually an interesting comment on power, if you think about it. (I think. I could be completely making this up in my head.) Dennah, her mother, and grandmother are in harmony with themselves and the world around them, and it seems like that is where there power comes from. Of course, wherever true power exists there will be those who want to harness and control it. Where there is oppression, there will be repression, and with repression, power tends to manifest itself in unhealthy, abusive ways. From there, misunderstanding and fear are just a hop, skip, and a jump away.

I’m certainly intrigued by the characters and world Garfinkle has created, and I’m interested to see where she takes them, and how this theme of power plays out (if it’s actually there).

I also enjoy a good love triangle, which probably says something about my sexuality that I don’t care to analyze right now, and I was intrigued by the Dennah-Jeth-Skallon angle. I’m interested in seeing how that turns out as well.

But.

There was so much world-building, so much establishing the history and culture, the story paled in comparison. The pacing was inconsistent – very slow at the beginning, and very fast at the end.

There were parts that were repetitive: the reader would learn about something, then a while later, another character would learn about it, and then later, still another character would learn it. It was the same information, never deepening.

The story was told in third-person narrative. It was hard to follow at times, being in one character’s head one moment and in another the next, with little or no warning. Little breaks *** would have helped with that, I think.

And, okay, the serpent on the cross. I’m familiar with the Old Testament story where the Israelites looked to the serpent on the cross for healing, and I understand the serpent on the cross in this story brought death. I didn’t understand why. I thought Garfinkle was coming to it at one point, but then she pulled back. Is it because the villain wanted to use Jewish symbolism against them? Does it have something to do with the patriarchy? (So sorry. Couldn’t resist.) The whole thing has me going, “But whyeeeee?”

Even with these issues and the fact that this was a solid 3 out of 5 stars for me, though, I’m intrigued enough to continue the series. Gotta’ know how that love triangle goes down. And that comment on power, of course.  Plus, I’m hopeful now that the world is firmly established, the story will continue in the second book as strongly as it ended in the first book.

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