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[BOOK REVIEW] Venom in Her Veins by Tim Pratt

Genre: Sword and Sorcery, Forgotten Realms, Media Tie-in
Mass Market Paperback: 320 pages
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
Publication Date: March 6, 2012
ISBN-10: 0786959843
ISBN-13: 978-0786959846
Author Website: Tim Pratt

Zaltys is a serpentman yuan-ti, though she doesn’t know it. One of the rare yuan-ti born looking fully human, she was discovered as a baby by a trading caravan deep in the jungle. Kept in the dark about her origin, Zaltys has grown up thinking she is nothing other than human. But when a chance encounter with a sentient ghost serpent and the particulars of her own coming-of-age ceremony raise some questions about here identity, the girl who has been raised to believe that family is all believes she must go into the Underdark to rescue what remains of her now long-enslaved yuan-ti relatives. What she discovers in the deep caverns will elate and shock her, and force her to decide what venom is in her veins.

Tim Pratt’s first foray into writing for the Forgotten Realms is not a complex story. Character motivations are clearly articulated and are not particularly deep. The plot moves at a well-modulated but predictable pace. Yet, there are spots of illumination that make this particular sword and sorcery story a grand read. There is Pratt’s use of the yuan-ti. Traditionally, in Forgotten Realms lore, yuan-ti are half-man, half-serpent monsters that worship demon gods and are evil to the core. Though not the first to write of the yuan-ti (Lisa Smedman did so extensively in her House of Serpents trilogy), Pratt does and excellent job of turning a “monster” race into a “people.” As the story progresses, we find that race matters little in determining a person’s predilection for goodness or evil.

Perhaps the most fun aspect of the story is the derro. A race of underground semi-dwarves, it is these who first enslaved Zaltys’ biological family. Derro are mad – literally. Not stark-raving screaming mad, but just crazy enough to act illogically – at least as a sane person perceives logic. And this insanity affects the whole race, to the point that their megalomania makes you wonder just how the race survives. Pratt has wonderfully explored this racial characteristic. As the reader encounters more and more derro, each one makes you think that you have a grasp on how this race of creatures may act in a given situation. Pratt, with comic wit, will then have them act out their madness in a way unpredictable to the reader. For instance, why does one derro eat bugs that another finds distasteful. How could a race of mad creatures take on the fearsome aboleth – and win? Even eye tyrants stand little chance against these small but fearsome foes. Yet at the same time, each derro, while participating in a racial flaw, acts out the madness as and individual, and thereby does not undermine the theme developing in Zalty’s narrative. Pratt’s writing of the derro is laced with a comic effect that elevates this story beyond just a simple dungeon delve. I laughed often at the antics of the derro, and it is these that made this a better-than-average story.

Too, I also like how foolish teenage hotheadness gets Zaltys in trouble. Right from the start, her expedition into the Underdark is fraught with danger, and while the young yuan-ti is dogged enough to continue her pursuit and intelligent enough to outfox enemies at times, there are other situations where only the help of allies (and her adoptive parent and protectors) can save her. Zaltys is not some perfect heroine able to overcome all odds. This humanizing effect makes her character significantly more interesting to read.

However, there is some underdevelopment in the writing too. The dragonborn Krailash, who plays an important role in Zaltys rearing and her escape from the Underdark, lacks enough connection to Zaltys emotionally, enough that his sacrifice is not as emotionally impactful as it might have been. Zaltys’s connection with her adoptive mother, too, lacks the requisite depth to make her sacrifices affect the reader as deeply as they may have. In all, the supportive cast orbits Zaltys’s sun, but each only shows one face of that relationship. In a story that revolves on the theme of family and loyalty to it, this leaves the reader feeling there was potentially more in the relationships to be explored. This undermining of theme leaves Venom in Her Veins a great action-adventure with touches of humor lacking thematic and character depth.

On the whole, I enjoyed reading Venom in Her Veins. As a stand-alone novel it is entertaining and pleasurable. There is the potential for more stories of Zaltys indicated in the ending, and I’d like to read those, but with hopes that the character might access more of herself than the family imperative. Ultimately, though, Venom in Her Veins is a most satisfying read.

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