Book Review. The Serpent Papers by Jessica Cornwell @JessACornwell

The Serpent Papers cover


I’m publishing this review slightly ahead of the actual official publication of this novel, (due on the 29th of January) so although I include the link to the pre-order page, I have not included some of the other data as that will not be available until after publication (and I imagine it could change). I suspect it will be quite easy to find, though.

I requested a free copy of this novel from Net Galley when I read the description and saw this was a book about a quest for knowledge, the search for an old manuscript, and the action took place in part in Barcelona. Being from Barcelona and having loved books and reading all my life, it was difficult to resist.

The Serpent Papers is the story of the search for an old illuminated manuscript (a palimpsest to be precise) that has been hidden for years to prevent its destruction. The links of this manuscript with alchemy, an enigmatic figure (Rex Illuminatus confused  at times with the historical figure of Ramon Llull), immortality, witches, and women’s murders make for a complex story. At the heart of the novel there’s a scholar/detective/expert, Anna Verco, who might or might not have some paranormal powers (that might instead be due to organic reasons). Like in many of these books, the search for meaning also becomes an inquiry into the main character and what she stands for.

Cornwell (granddaughter of John le Carré) builds up a complex structure to tell her story. Letters from different periods, accounts of previous attempts at investigating Rex Illuminatus by other experts, interviews of people who knew the victims, dreams and hallucinations…All of them sound and read real, showing a breadth of knowledge and characterization rich and convincing. The language can go from the poetic and lyrical to the mundane and down-to-earth, changing registers with ease.

I loved the little snippets of folk story and legends of the city of Barcelona, the descriptions of the landscape of the island of Mallorca, and the challenges the story poses. It is not an easy read and it can be demanding, both of one’s attention and also of knowledge and deductive capacities. I wondered if a cast of characters for the different eras with some brief descriptions might not make the reading experience easier.

Men using their power and violence to silence women, women being cast as witches as a way of shutting them up, and centuries of attempts at keeping secrets under wraps are not new ideas (at times it made me think of Lars von Trier’s Antichrist although the novel is more complex) but that does not detract from a solid novel that I kept imagining in a big screen near us. I can see actresses fighting over the main character and Barcelona and Mallorca looking very handsome indeed in the adaptation.

I understand this is the first in an ‘alchemical thriller’ trilogy. The appeal and the pull on the imagination of the subject would keep readers coming back for more. Readers who like books about intrigues in a historical setting and with conspiracy theory backgrounds will enjoy it, although I suspect it might be slightly more demanding than previous titles that have become very popular.

In a separate note, I wasn’t sure about the Catalan sentences. There were a number of typos and I couldn’t work out if it was phonetically recorded rather than intended as orthographically correct. More consistency in that aspect would have made the book more seamless for me (that would not be a problem for people not familiar with Catalan).

Just in case you want to check what others have said, here is the Guardian:

What the book is about: The search for a palimpsest (a piece of writing, usually ancient, done on top of another writing, a bit like some paintings that have been found to be painted on top of older images) that contains a secret, the people who’ve fought to preserve it and the price they’ve paid.

 Book Highlights: The historical background, the beauty of the descriptions of both Mallorca and Barcelona, the snippets of folk stories and insight into the world of theatre and performances. And the language.

 Challenges of the book: It is a book complex in structure, with different historical periods, different styles of writing and documents, and it keeps you on your toes. It can be dense at times.

 What do you get from it: It made me think, it made me wonder about my own city (Barcelona) and it got me thinking about structure and stylistics.

 What I would have changed if anything: I might have added some timelines and cast of characters in the different eras to aid readers navigate through the ins and outs and of its complex world. (See my above note about the fragments in Catalan in the book).

 Who Would I recommend this book to?: To readers of historical intrigue, lovers of alchemy, puzzles, who don’t mind a bit of a challenge. It also has a complex central female investigator who can “communicate” in interesting ways with books. Not suited if you’re just looking for an easy read or a break.

Realistic Characterization: 3.5/5
Made Me Think: 5/5
Overall enjoyment: 4/5
Readability: 3.5/5
Recommended: 4/5
Overall Rating: 4/5

Buy it at:  In pre-order at Amazon
Format & Pricing:
Paperback:  (480 pages) No link available

Olga Núñez Miret




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