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10/05/2005 Entry: "Clare Dunkle's IN THE COILS OF THE SNAKE -- I hate, then reconsider (Preeti)"

In the Coils of the Snake

I'm annoyed that this book I've been looking forward to for a year didn't wow me. Clare Dunkle's IN THE COILS OF THE SNAKE started off great, but too much within me instinctively strains against Dunkle's society of elves and goblins in rural 19th century England. That, and the absence of a character as charismatic as Marak from THE HOLLOW KINGDOM didn't help. Oh, and the end seemed rushed. If I dwell too much on this book, I'll probably end up divesting it of any worth in my mind when, in fact, I thought it was a good read with huge problems.

Miranda is a human molded by the old goblin king to marry his son and heir Catspaw. Now that she's 17, she's been allowed to leave the human world and enter the Hollow Kingdom--the goblin land--where she's looking forward to the respect and status she'll get as the King's Wife.

However, this is not to be. Goblin kings marry elves, who had been thought to have all but died out. But appearing shortly before Miranda's wedding is a band of elves. Their leader, Ash, is willing to trade with Catspaw -- an elf wife for the books of elvish magic that have been in the goblins' keeping. Ash is determined for the elves to thrive again.

The practical Catspaw throws over Miranda--who is furious and hurt--and means for her to marry some high-ranking goblin. She demands her freedom instead, leaves the goblin kingdom, and is promptly magically entrapped by the elf lord, who is driven to act by his magic. This infuriates Catspaw, despite the fact that he's taken an unwilling 17-year-old elf-bride of his own, and the two sides look to be headed for battle.

So where do I even begin listing the things I didn't like? I think I'll have to resort to bullet points. Spoilers abound, so beware!

--Miranda was almost entirely worthless as a heroine in this book. What did she do, precisely, besides sulk over not being a goblin queen and then become reconciled to being an elvish one?

--The magically-reinforced gender and government roles drove me crazy. Happiness is that there be strong magical kings with brides from other races. I won't go into details, but magic as an excuse for a sorry-ass society where men kidnap and then patronize their 17-year-old wives doesn't do anything for me. The sheer entitlement that magic gives people to rule others is excruciating to a republican like me.

--The editorializing at the end about the new rapprochement between the elves and goblins makes me think the author is trying to draw parallels between Christians and Muslims. Joy.

--I was surprised that two of the surprises were supposed to be surprises. One was that Ash was an Elf King instead of just an elf lord. But I went through the whole book thinking he was the elf king (lord, king--what was the difference?), so this wasn't as awe-inspring a revelation as it should have been. The second was that Miranda was Ash's wife, not just his captive. But this too was the assumption I'd made when he performed the first spell on her, so again the big reveal was anti-climactic.

--OK, this is a young adult book, but I'm dying to learn more about the sex lives of elves. Dunkle tried to make it not-creepy, but it kinda still was. I wanted it explained more. The whole alienness of it was kind of the point, but I just didn't buy that Dunkle's system would even work as set up, so her point was weakened for me.

--Does any magic that kills wives not sanctioned by it deserve to be perpetuated?

--Might these reactionary races not deserve to die out? They don't seem amenable to adaption and change.

Dunkle is a gifted writer. The best part of IN THE COILS OF THE SNAKE is the powerful, emotional beginning. Scenes with Tattoo the goblin guard were amusing. And the magical touches in the trilogy have always been neat. Indeed, it was a page-turner peppered with wonderful little scenes throughout. But you can see I lost sight of the individual characters' struggles (because I didn't find these people compelling) to basically rant against the world Dunkle created.

In the end, I'd tell readers to enjoy THE HOLLOW KINGDOM and skip the sequels.--Preeti

UPDATE: Wow, I can't believe how peeved I was at this book right after I finished reading! I'm much mellower about its worth now (three days later). Of course Dunkle deliberately means to make both the elves' and goblins' cultures challenging to us humans. She's illustrating in a perfectly clever fashion--see my own antagonism above--exactly how cultural differences and historical legacies can all too easily lead to hate, mistrust, misunderstanding, and war.--Preeti

--IN THE COILS OF THE SNAKE at Amazon (YA, Book 3 of The Hollow Kingdom)
--THE HOLLOW KINGDOM review page (Book 1)
--CLOSE KIN review page (Book 2)

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