The Serpent Papers, despite being Jessica Cornwell’s first novel, has already been signed on by the publishing house (and it’s a big one) to be made into a trilogy. Yet after finishing this novel, I wasn’t exactly sure why it needed to be a trilogy – or alas, who would take the time to read it.

The blurb to The Serpent Papers sounded great. Set in Barcelona, Spain, it tells the intermingling stories that centre around Anna Verco – a ‘book hunter’ who also has a strange, supernatural gift. Surrounding the main plot of Anna trying to track down a really old and powerful book is the crime story of four women who were brutally murdered 10 years ago. As Anna tries to help the police solve the murders, she sets herself on a path that may very well lead to her discovering the book…but also getting herself killed.

Sounds cool, right? It’s got old books, a book hunter, an awesome setting and a bit of alchemy thrown into the mix. Despite being a fiction book there were tonnes of facts about real people, which is something I really love too (it makes me look extra brainy at trivia nights). Yet this book fell flat, and it held no emotional or intellectual appeal for me at all. In fact, from about page 200 (its about 500 pages long), I was longing for the end – and if I didn’t have the rule that once I start a book I need to finish it…well, I wouldn’t have finished The Serpent Papers.

There were two problems with this book and they both can be described as such ‘biting off more than you can chew’. Jessica Cornwell is clearly a very intelligent woman, but unfortunately she seems more interested in including everything she knows about alchemy and history onto the pages, without dumbing it down to people who have never studied it. I know that we give authors like Dan Brown a hard time for essentially writing ‘low brow’ literature, but the reason he’s so successful is that he gets all these facts that most of us have never heard of and spins them in a way that is both relevant to the story, as well as understandable to the average reader. And while Cornwell may argue that her novel is for more of an educated audience, I stand by my point that even educated people don’t know much about 16th century alchemists.

So, as a result, while these facts could have been stimulating and in fact add colour to the storyline, what ended up happening was that I became so dulled and confused by them that I zoned out for pages at a time.

The second issue with The Serpent Papers is that Cornwell simply had too much going on. In those 500 odd pages, she had the main story of Anna searching for her book; a 10-year old murder case to be solved; perspective from the accused murderer (from ten years ago); then we go backwards and forwards from a few centuries ago where a series of letters are being written about Rex Illuminatus; and to top it all off, the story starts mid-way, so that we’re unsure who we’re dealing with at first – Anna, or one of the dead women?

And while including so much information has the unfortunate side effect of being confusing, the bigger issue is that things that should be included are left out, and things that aren’t necessary are kept in. For example, there’s a 60-page  story arch about a character who was accused of the murders – so we hear about why he was the supposed killer, we hear from his roommate and hey, we even learn that a friend of his was actually a lesbian. NOT RELEVANT. Why is this not relevant? Because he isn’t actually the killer, surprise surprise, and after that 60 pages dedicated to him, we don’t really hear from him again. Yet, this information is included, but at a cost – Anna’s discovery, which essentially leads to the ending of the book is sloppy, underdeveloped and too easily solved – she does it simply with her psychic powers. It was as though Cornwell just lost steam by the end of the novel. And for a crime novel, I think most people would agree that that’s just disappointing.

I feel bad to leave such a bad review about The Serpent Papers but it just really disappointed me. What could have been a really great premise for a novel fell flat almost immediately, and while Jessica Cornwell definitely has the knowledge and intelligence to be a great writer, I think she needs a strong editing team and a bit of experience before she gets there.

Have you read The Serpent Papers? Are you a fan of crime novels? Let me know!

the serpent papers by jessica cornwell

The Serpent Papers – (image taken from http://www.gr-assets.com)

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