Elizabeth Hopkinson

Amid my immersion in papers, problem sets and paperbacks, a flash of gold caught my eye. A gilded serpent slithered across my phone screen, weaving its way into my sightline. The cover of Shelby Mahurin’s “Serpent & Dove” seemed to follow me across the web, popping up in advertisements and on social media. The more I evaded the serpent, the more often it snaked into the outskirts of my screen. And so, a few weeks ago, I decided to follow my instincts: I pursued the serpent across the Atlantic and found myself in the fictional French city of Cesarine…

Inspired by watching my suitemate immerse herself into reading for pleasure once more and finding a slice of free time about two weeks ago, I dove heart-first into “Serpent & Dove” by Shelby Mahurin with loose expectations and without any prior knowledge. Little did I know that this book would steal a little bit of my heart with each chapter, that I would shed tears for the characters’ pain and jump back in horrified laughter from their brazenness. All I want to do is read it over again, read it backward, read it upside down and read it forever. I want to escape into the city of Cesarine, even if it “reeked of fish … and smoke.” I want to walk the streets of the St. Nicolas Festival, smelling the “spice of cinnamon treats” and eyeing the “sables, madeleines, and palmiers.” But, alas, the city of New Haven will have to suffice.

“Serpent & Dove” follows Lou, a “Dame Blanche,” who has taken refuge in the city of Cesarine, and Reid, a “Chasseur,” who has spent his whole life protecting the city. The term Dame Blanche, meaning white lady, stems from French folklore: Women who were suspected of witchcraft or any supernatural proclivity were considered Dames Blanches. In this context, Dames Blanches are witches whose power stems from balance and sacrifice. Chasseurs, meaning hunters, are pious soldiers who answer to the Archbishop and who devote their lives to burning witches at the stake.

Prior to the start of the novel, Lou escaped from the Dames Blanches after her mother attempted to sacrifice her for political power. Lou successfully hides from her mother as a thief in the alleyways of Cesarine for two years, but upon running into Reid at a patisserie, everything shatters. Following a robbery gone wrong, Lou is captured by Reid, but not before she publicly taints his reputation — considering he is the captain of the Chasseurs, this is not an ideal situation. The Archbishop proposes a compromise that will both keep Lou out of jail and maintain Reid’s reputation: marriage. Against both of their wills, Lou and Reid are forced to the altar. A Dame Blanche and a Chasseur. A witch and a witch hunter. And the worst part? He doesn’t even know that she’s a witch. What could possibly go wrong?

What I loved most about this book was that the plot seemed to exist in the background, while the evolving relationship between Lou and Reid seemed to bloom in the foreground. Now, it was quite obvious from the beginning that Lou and Reid would fall in love. It’s a fantasy romance. Honestly, did you expect any different? I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly mind when books are predictable. This classic romance plot where natural-born enemies fall in love — think Capulets and Montagues in “Romeo and Juliet” ­— is a tale as old as time; some people think it’s trite, but I never get tired of it.

At the start of their marriage, Lou and Reid abhor each other with a vehement passion. I have never been more entertained than when I read their first scenes following the ceremony. Lou does everything in her power to make Reid uncomfortable, emphasizing her tendency to deflect pain and misery with humor. Reid, however, basks in his anguish; in his eyes, he has been forced to marry a heathen — rude, right? Yet, despite Lou’s rebelliousness and Reid’s stubbornness, they slowly fall for each other, even though they don’t want to admit it. You wouldn’t believe how many times I yelled “Kiss already!” to the pages of the book. It’s honestly a little embarrassing, but the author creates such a relatable and captivating relationship alongside a build-up of tension, that it’s impossible not to root so fiercely for Lou and Reid.

Besides the charming enemies-turned-lovers romance, the plot thickens quite fast once Lou discovers that her mother is closer to finding her — closer to killing her. Everything quickly snowballs as Lou and Reid realize their feelings for each other and Lou continues to lie to Reid about her true supernatural nature. Danger follows Lou at her heels, foreshadowing the coming war and alerting Reid to Lou’s dishonesty. But Mahurin envelops you so fully in the love story between the protagonists, in the fact that Reid is, without knowing, falling in love with the very thing he hates, that you don’t see the danger coming.

Mahurin builds a rollercoaster, plank by plank, shooting you towards the sky with pure joy and then suddenly plummeting you towards the ground with grating fear. One moment I was giddy with glee, admiring Lou’s dubious plans and adoring Reid’s more vulnerable side, and the next moment, I was choking back tears sparked by impassioned arguments and sudden deaths. Then just seconds later, I was cracking up like I was watching a sitcom.

What struck me as truly captivating about “Serpent & Dove” was Mahurin’s ability to surprise me as a reader, to make my jaw drop to the floor in complete and utter shock. As much as I thought I could anticipate this book all the way through, due to the genre’s predictable nature, I was constantly surprised by the characters. Just when I thought I knew what was in Reid’s stubborn heart, he would crush my own into a million pieces. Just when I thought I was privy to the Archbishop’s innermost secrets, he would stop me in my tracks. And just when I thought that the ending was clear, Mahurin obscured the path. By the climax, I couldn’t see two feet in front of me.

Since reading “Serpent & Dove,” my heart feels more complete, yet emptier, and my mind feels clearer, yet more mystified. I have more questions than when I started. More hopes and dreams. More doubts and fears. I feel as if I’m spinning in circles, caught between my own reality and Mahurin’s fantasy. I want to move forward in my life, fly beyond “Serpent & Dove,” but my mind is cemented in the past, stranded in the bewitching pages of the book. Fortunately, my savior has already come: “Blood and Honey,” the sequel that was recently released. I don’t imagine I’ll have much free time to leap into the next book before Christmas, but until then, I urge you to catch the next train to Cesarine. You won’t believe what’s waiting for you… 

Jacqueline Kaskel | jacqueline.kaskel@yale.edu