Those who are well-versed in Pullman’s multiverse might have expected Serpentine to be something like his previous spin-offs – a neat, self-contained adventure like Lyra and the Birds (contained in Lyra’s Oxford), or a satisfying slice of backstory like Once Upon A Time The North. Fans might also have hoped for more of the splendid ephemera that came folded into those books – maps, correspondence, newspaper extracts, even a board game. (Peril of the Pole).
Serpentine comes with no board game, and is a plotless, sullen snapshot of Lyra and Pan in the aftermath of The Amber Spyglass, now revisiting the Arctic we first saw in Northern Lights. Its 70 pages are dominated by uneasy dialogue about how humans relate to their dæmons – the animal companions who embody their souls and can never leave their sides (although there are exceptions). With those preoccupations and a wounded, melancholy tone, it treads much of the same ground as last year’s The Secret Commonwealth. That’s for good reason – it represents something of a trial run. It was written for a charity auction in 2004, years before The Book Of Dust was planned, so is a first bash at an older, more reflective Lyra and Pan, forever scarred by what they’ve seen and done.
Serpentine might have fit more comfortably as a bonus in the recent essay collection Dæmon Voices, as it doesn’t quite justify its own slim volume in the same way as Pullman’s earlier tangents. It’s worthwhile as an insight into how and why he slowly made his way back to Lyra, rather than as an essential piece of her story. That concept of dæmons, the irresistible hook in those very first pages of Northern Lights, has become the beating heart of Pullman’s fiction. In the afterword to Serpentine, he writes ‘I hope that, above all, these books are about being human’. Dæmons are his bespoke tools for poking at that particular problem. They have allowed him to explore depression, love, regret, innocence, experience, and so much more. They are Pullman’s very own beautiful shorthand, and here he is developing it.