What happens when you combine Edgar Allen Poe, Shakespeare and a smattering of historical figures? The answer, in Christopher Moore’s case, is high-quality satire that’s both pointed and hilarious.
The Serpent of Venice is a dizzying romp through a mythical version of late thirteenth-century Italy. It follows the raucous exploits of the vexatious but good-natured scoundrel Pocket (a carryover from Fool – Moore’s 2009 reimagining of King Lear) as he tries to prevent a Crusade and exact revenge for his attempted murder. With his enormous sidekick Drool, his tiny monkey Jeff, and a host of the Bard’s most familiar heroes and villains, Pocket of Dog Snogging travels from Montressor Brabantio’s cellar to a Genoan prison and back, alternately annoying or ruining as many people as possible along the way (as long as they deserve it, naturally).
Moving from The Cask of Amontillado to Othello to The Merchant of Venice as seamlessly as one would walk through an open door, Moore taunts and teases new life into old characters and gives them tantalizingly fleshy dimensions. Of course, he takes a lot of liberty with the source material to do it, so if you’re die-hard about Shakespearean purity then you should probably just read the plays themselves. The hard are made soft, the serious silly, and Iago becomes less the cold, calculating psychopath than a silly, petty troublemaker.
Alternating between the flowering prose of Early Modern English (used sparingly) and bawdy contemporary profanity (used prolifically)—often in the same line—Moore creates a cheeky, humorous dialogue that never grows stale or stilted. (However, beware: there is a lot of naughty language. And some sex. And naughty language in reference to sex, both real and imagined.)
Because of the deftness with which Moore weaves setting and plot, The Serpent of Venice moves briskly and is both exciting and comical. His world is easily imagined and immersive. The only breaks come from his insistence on cutting, as with scenes in a film, between different narrative voices and even fiddling with narrative time in unexpected ways. In one instance he directly mentions breaking the “fourth wall.” Yet this is not enough to detract from the work as a whole, and it remains a highly entertaining and recommended piece of fiction that juggles and parries almost as well as Pocket himself.
Also: There’s a dragon, which is pretty cool.