Book Review: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

I’ll admit, historical fiction isn’t always my cup of tea. But when a friend whose taste in books I trust raved about The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, I decided to give it a try. And I’m so glad I did, because this novel completely drew me into its dark and atmospheric world of myth, love, and social change in Victorian England.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

TitleThe Essex Serpent
AuthorSarah Perry
GenreFiction, Romance
Publication DateMay 27, 2016
Length432 pages

Where to Purchase

The Story and Setting

The Essex Serpent takes place primarily in Aldwinter and Essex in the 1890s. Our main character is Cora Seaborne, a curious and independent young widow who has just been freed from an abusive marriage. When Cora hears rumors that a mythical serpent called the Essex Serpent has returned to the coastal parish of Aldwinter, she sets out to investigate and becomes obsessed with the idea of finding the creature.

Cora forms a connection with the parish’s pastor, William Ransome, who is concerned for the physical and mental wellbeing of his flock as fear of the serpent grows. Their relationship forms the emotional core of the story as it grows from a clash of scientific and spiritual worldviews into a deep affection and understanding.

The mythical serpent becomes a catalyst for the changes unfolding in this community, from medical advancements to social reforms to religious doubts. Cora and William often find themselves on opposing sides of debates about faith, science, and progress.

My Thoughts on the Book

I found this book utterly gripping right from the start. Cora Seaborne is such a fascinating heroine, with her independent spirit and singular focus bordering on obsession. She’s complex, flawed, yet sympathetic.

The gothic atmosphere is palpable. The vivid descriptions transport you right into this eerie, misty landscape where superstitions persist about winged beasts lurking offshore. Perry builds tension beautifully with the persistent references to the Essex Serpent that may or may not be real. The mystery kept me turning pages long into the night.

I also loved how the author wove in social commentary on the issues of the era. The discussions about the roles of men and women, faith versus science, traditions versus progress felt relevant even today. The themes of doubt, fear, love, and community resonated with me.

The writing itself is just gorgeous. Perry perfectly captures the atmosphere, relationships, descriptive details, and social issues in vivid yet beautiful prose. The pacing flows so smoothly and the storytelling outshines many other historical fiction novels I’ve read lately.

Some Flaws

I didn’t love every single aspect of the book, even though my overall impression was highly positive. While I was invested in Cora’s story line, I was less interested in some of the side plots featuring lesser characters in the village. The ending also felt a bit rushed to me. I wish the novel spent more time fleshing out the falling action and resolution of certain storylines.

But overall, these were minor critiques in what was an engrossing and excellent novel.

My Recommendation

I’d highly recommend The Essex Serpent to fans of historical fiction, Gothic literature, or mystery novels with a twist of dark folklore. While a slower paced read, it remains utterly absorbing thanks to phenomenal writing, an intriguing heroine, and an atmosphere you can get lost in. I’ll definitely be seeking out more novels by Sarah Perry if The Essex Serpent is any indication of her talent and captivating storytelling abilities. This book has it all – romance, mystery, social commentary, and a touch of the supernatural. A thoroughly satisfying and thought-provoking read.


  • Paula Davis

    Paula Davis is a dedicated and seasoned content writer for Dreaming and Reading, where she brings her extensive knowledge and passion for literature to a wide audience of fellow book enthusiasts. With the heart of a true bookworm, Paula has immersed herself in the literary world, devouring approximately 50 books annually for the last 15 years. This impressive reading habit has not only provided her with immense joy but has also significantly honed her expertise, experience, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness in the realm of book reviews. Her insightful and well-crafted reviews reflect her deep understanding and appreciation of various genres, offering valuable guidance to readers in search of their next great read. With a finger always on the pulse of the latest literary releases, Paula Davis is a trusted voice and a go-to source for book recommendations and reviews.

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