Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore

Do you enjoy the sketches and films of the British comedy troupe Monty Python?  Can you appreciate Shakespeare's plays?  Are you an Anglophile as well as an Italophile?  If you answered "Yes!" to all three of those questions, then you should enjoy reading The Serpent of Venice.

In a faux British and or Elizabethan English writer Christopher Moore follows his comic creation, Pocket the King's Fool from the novel Fool, through his next adventure in his storied life.  Surrounded by settings, characters, and storylines from Shakespeare's plays and one Edgar Allan Poe short story, Pocket jokes his way through Medieval Venice, Italy (1299), Venetian Corsica, and Genoa in The Serpent of Venice.  The chapters often read like scripts for Monty Python sketches.  I even found myself imagining the female characters as men in drag with screechy falsetto voices.

At the end of Fool, Pocket marries Cordelia, the late King Lear's daughter, making Pocket consort to the Queen of Britain and France.  In The Serpent of Venice, which I received from the publisher in exchange for a review, Pocket goes to Venice on a very un-diplomatic mission for his wife. 

Just like Fool, The Serpent of Venice is presented as a play, with The Cast (list of principle characters), The Stage (setting), Five Acts (sections), and numbered chapters as the Scenes within the Acts.  In true Shakespearean style, an opening Invocation by a Chorus calls upon a Muse to inspire the author.

I don't wish to give away too much of the plot here, but if you read the book's description provided by the publisher, reproduced below, you get the gist of the first scenes of the book.  But is it a book you will enjoy?  Well, ask yourself those three questions above, again, and keep reading here to find out.

The author alters the narrative voice at times to let us get inside his characters' minds, especially Pocket's complex mind.  Here is Pocket recalling a conversation with his wife in which Pocket suggests his form of diplomacy and his desire to sire:
"I adore you, including and especially your specific lady bits, but I respect the awesome twattiness with which you wield dominion over the realm.  No, I say send them another pound of royal seals and wax, with a resounding 'Fuck off' to the pope, in Latin.  Signed Queen Cordelia, Britain, France, et ceterea, et cetera, and after lunch I can try to impregnate you with the royal heir."

"No," she said, her delicate jaw quite set.

"Well, fine then," said I.  "We'll send the letter, skip lunch, and go right to siring the heir.  I'm feeling full of tiny princes, bustling to get out into the world and start plotting against one another."  I thrust my cod at her to show the palpable urgency of our progeny.

The dialog is full of period puns, and period and up-to-date vulgarity, as well as self-referential jokes.  The dialog has a formality that reminded me of those 1930s-1940s historical Hollywood films, and I even found myself picturing Danny Kaye as Pocket, albeit with a more vulgar tongue than old Hollywood would have allowed the comic.  Like Danny Kaye, Pocket has the same, unexpected, propensity for pathos.

I thought the humor was best between the characters of Pocket and the Moor.  And I liked the insightful descriptions, such as this one concerning the young woman Portia and her hand-maiden:
Waiting upon the lady was her maid Nerissa, a raven-haired beauty half again as clever as her mistress, and as good a friend as money could buy.  The two had been together since they were little girls, and so loved and hated each other like sisters.

Events are not described chronologically, the language can be mindbogglingly vulgar, and the humor can wear thin after a while, since it is generally more difficult to appreciate this kind of humor reading it, as opposed to watching it performed.  Those are the three reasons I found it best to read The Serpent of Venice in small doses.  That kept the humor fresh, but it did make it difficult to follow the plot.

I found the self-referential humor most reminiscent of Monty Python's sketches and films.  For example, here is an exchange between Jessica, daughter of Shylock, and Pocket after he tells her father than his name is Lancelot.
Jessica whirled on me and whispered furiously, "Lancelot?"  Where did you get bloody Lancelot?"

"I thought it would explain away my English accent."

"We all have English accents, you knob."

"I know," said I.  "And in a Italian city.  Don't you find that strange?"

There is also violence in novel, coming mainly from the creature in the Lagoon that is The Serpent of Venice.  Vicious death comes to many in the book, and salvation to others.  If filmed, the book would be more of a comic horror movie inspired by Edgar Allan Poe, than a historical comedy.  Reading about the gore is less upsetting than seeing it, however, so if you dislike horror stories, you might still like The Serpent of Venice.  There is a nice twist late in the novel as a famous Venetian makes an appearance and is linked to the serpent.

If you are up to American-Monty-Python-does-Shakespeare-in-Venice then you are ready for The Serpent of Venice.  Take it in small doses, and enjoy the author's invention, his facility with language, and especially his facility with vulgarisms.  If you try to picture it performed while you read, you will enjoy it more, since reading The Serpent of Venice is much like reading a Shakespearean farce, or the screenplay for Monty Python's Life of Brian; they pale compared to the performance of the text.

From the book's description:
New York Times bestselling author Christopher Moore channels William Shakespeare and Edgar Allan Poe in this satiric Venetian gothic that brings back the Pocket of Dog Snogging, the eponymous hero of Fool, along with his sidekick, Drool, and pet monkey, Jeff.
Venice, a long time ago. Three prominent Venetians await their most loathsome and foul dinner guest, the erstwhile envoy of Britain and France, and widower of the murdered Queen Cordelia: the rascal-Fool Pocket.

This trio of cunning plotters-the merchant, Antonio; the senator, Montressor Brabantio; and the naval officer, Iago-have lured Pocket to a dark dungeon, promising an evening of sprits and debauchery with a rare Amontillado sherry and Brabantio's beautiful daughter, Portia.

But their invitation is, of course, bogus. The wine is drugged. The girl isn't even in the city limits. Desperate to rid themselves once and for all of the man who has consistently foiled their grand quest for power and wealth, they have lured him to his death. (How can such a small man, be such a huge obstacle?). But this Fool is no fool . . . and he's got more than a few tricks (and hand gestures) up his sleeve.
Note:  The book, too, is a veritable work of art. Rich creamy stock is enhanced by two-color printing, featuring part/chapter titles, running heads, and folios printed in red ink. The text block has blue-stained edges. The book opens to reveal two-page spread endpapers decorated with a sepia-toned antique map of Venice; an antique map of Italy graces the book’s front matter, printed in red. The jacket sports a matte finish with embossed author and title type; gold foil embellishes the title and illustration detail.

Here is a 3 minute interview with the author about the previous book featuring Pocket, Fool:

This is a link to the full interview.

Here is a link to The Serpent of Venice at

If you enjoy Christopher Moore's style, you might like some of his other books.  Here are direct links to some of his books at

Visit with the author via his:

This review is by Candida Martinelli, of Candida Martinelli's Italophile Site, and the author of the cozy-murder-mystery novel AN EXTRA VIRGIN PRESSING MURDER, and the young-adult/adult mystery novel series THE VIOLET STRANGE MYSTERIES the first book of which is VIOLET'S PROBLEM.

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