Serpent & Dove – ARC review

Author: Shelby Mahurin
Publication Date: September 3, 2019 (yes, I’m aware that that was two months ago, but I received this ARC less than a week before the book came out, as part of a thank-you from Epic Reads, and it’s been hard to fit into my schedule…)
Genre: YA fantasy, romance
My rating: 3.5/5 stars

I really, really wanted to love this book. It sounded like my kind of story–witches! enemies-to-lovers! morally gray characters!–but the reality was disappointing in its execution.

The plot is pretty straightforward. Lou is a witch, hiding her magic and running from her coven and her painful past. Reid is a witch hunter, a member of the holy order of Chassuers. Lou is sarcastic, rebellious, foul-mouthed, and free-spirited. Reid is straightforward, obedient, regimented, and serious. Lou, in an attempt to steal a magical ring, crosses paths with Reid. Reid, in an attempt to apprehend her, ends up in a scandalous and compromising position. To cover the damage, the Archbishop decides that the two must marry each other. So begins a tumultuous relationship, with a blend of antagonism and affection, rebukes and redemption, trust and trepidation. Maybe even love, if only Lou could bring herself to trust Reid with the truth about her identity. But there are much bigger secrets out there than the sham that is their marriage, and there is much more at stake than just their own lives…

Usually in my reviews, I like to start with the good before moving on to criticisms, but I need to structure this one differently because many of my complaints were strictly about the beginning–by which I mean nearly the first 200 pages of a 500+ page book. I didn’t care about much of anyone at the beginning; Lou and Reid both felt very one-dimensional. Even with Lou’s occasional hints of worry about her past, she seemed mostly immature and impulsive. Reid was a total stick in the mud who brought up honor and/or the Archbishop on nearly every page. The circumstances of their marriage, and Reid’s ready acceptance of it, felt contrived (which sucks, because that set up the entire premise of the book, and it was a fragile foundation for sure). Lou’s friend Coco seemed interesting but was relegated to a rarely-seen side role. The eternally sassy Madame Labelle also didn’t get nearly as much early page-time as I would have liked. The only one I really loved from the beginning was Ansel, a young initiate of the Chasseurs and precious ball of sunshine who deserves to be protected at all costs. Fortunately, Ansel stayed wonderful throughout the whole book.

Also fortunately, the characters did eventually end up making great strides in complexity. Lou’s insecurities began to surface through the cracks in her carefree demeanor, and Reid began to question the morality of the church’s decisions. By page 300-ish, the two finally had a burgeoning romance that made sense, beyond the inexplicable attraction they seemed to feel for each other early on, with a grounding in trust and genuine care. To my surprise, I ended up finding Reid’s love for Lou far more touching and convincing than hers for him, which I suppose is both good and bad: good that I liked his side, and bad that it didn’t feel like an equal amount of affection on either side.

But I digress. As the book approached its two-thirds mark and hurtled toward its conclusion, we did get another character I couldn’t stand (seriously, I don’t get how or why said character was a) introduced, and b) so readily accepted by everyone). But we finally got more appearances and development from the feisty Coco and the mysterious, strong-willed Madame Labelle as well. It just took too long to get there. I spent so much time being annoyed with Reid and Lou, and not seeing enough of the side characters to care about them beyond mere curiosity, I almost DNF’d this one before I got to the good stuff.

And yes, there was plenty of good stuff once I actually got there. The romance became plausible, rather than irksome. I was genuinely rooting for this couple to work out. The plot began taking some serious twists, some of which I saw coming, others of which totally blindsided me (and one of which was WAY too convenient), and all of which had me frantically turning the pages as I tried to figure everything out. Though the magic system was not explained well at all in the beginning, the details of it were excellent once they finally came out.

Most importantly, there was excellent commentary on topics including prejudice, the difficulty of reconciling conflicting ideologies, and proof that, in any fight, both sides can be in the wrong yet also justified. That thematic concept, I think, was a large part of what made this book ultimately work. It was the fuel for much of the character development, it drove the plot, and it heightened the moral and emotional significance of key scenes. It seems to be a popular concept in YA fiction these days, but I haven’t gotten tired of it yet, so that’s something.

Okay, but hear me out: it may seem small, but another one of my biggest gripes with this book was the inconsistency of the setting. Ostensibly it is set in a world inspired by 17th-century France. Cool, sounds like a great setting for a book about burning witches at the stake. The French curse words are spectacular. But the characters’ language patterns are decidedly modern-sounding, which shattered some of my suspension of disbelief. For example, in one of the first chapters, Lou actually describes someone as having a “tight little ass,” which is a phrase I don’t really like in the first place, but feels even more out of place in the 17th century. Similarly, there’s a recurring joke about a certain song about a well-endowed woman. The name of that ditty? “Big Titty Liddy.” Funny? Yes, or at least the first time or two, then it became annoying, then hilarious again in specific context at the end. But still, it’s a word I don’t love too much on its own, made far worse by its use in a context where it makes zero sense.

Beyond the use of modern language though, there is some geographic weirdness. The witches celebrate Modraniht, a Celtic Anglo-Saxon holiday (read: from Ireland/England). There is also an offhand mention of Samhain, which is another Celtic holiday that is not (to my knowledge) celebrated in France. I guess what my complaint boils down to is this: either make you witches fit the country or change the setting; the hybrid doesn’t make sense. The devil is in the details, and when it came to those details in the setting, this book came up short for me.

All things considered, once it got to a point I enjoyed, this book was compelling and well-written. Its downfall was in its dreadful pacing and inability to make its characters interesting within a reasonable timeframe. If you love enemies to lovers stories, especially if you’re okay with the “enemies” part lasting for a long time, you’ll probably love this one. (And, for the “lovers” part, there is one relatively tame sex scene, for those of you who are into that sort of thing.) It covers big ideas. It’s twisty near the end. I guess it just wasn’t quite right for me, but given all the love it has received, I still think it is worth a read if you think it sounds intriguing.

TRIGGER/CONTENT WARNING: self-harm (for magic purposes, not any suicidal intent), nonconsensal drugging (inducing paralysis)

Thank you to Epic Reads (Harper Teen) for sending me an ARC of this book! This has not impacted my review in any way.

2 thoughts on “Serpent & Dove – ARC review

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