Serpent combines several works: Edgar Allen Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado" (only pertinent to the first of the book's five parts), Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice" and "Othello", and a dash of The Travels of Marco Polo. As an original element, apparently somehow inspired by Polo, it adds in a raping sea monster because WHAT.
... The sea monster rapist came out of left field for me. I found it rather disturbing. In the afterword, the author says the he put the "sex"* bit in because "I just thought that would be funny". OH CHRISTOPHER MOORE NO. It may be that the author is of the opinion that since the rape victim was the male protagonist and it didn't involve penetration, it's not "rape-rape". The male protagonist doesn't seem to know how to feel about the experience himself.
The pastiche is about 1 part parody, 1 part comedy, 2 parts drama, and 1 part horror. Despite fourth-wall breaking references (there's a Chorus that the rest of the cast responds to whenever he shows up to comment), the plot makes sense in the context of the setting -- it's not Spaceballs-style goofiness. It's readable, engaging, and well-paced. Actual Shakespeare dialogue gets sprinkled into the narrative here and there, in all its lyric beauty; sometimes this works well, and sometimes itKs jarring in contrast to the banal qualities of the surrounding text.It's not as funny as it thinks it is, but works despite that. Moore's Othello captures the spirit of Shakespeare's in a charming way. Shylock gets to be a protagonist (of a sort) and that works naturally. Bassanio is the familiar well-intentioned handsome blockhead you expect him to be. There is a fair share of good stuff in here, much of it not directly pillaged from Shakespeare.
This said, there were some things that didn't work for me. The raping monster. It was not funny. That the reader was intended to find it funny made it cast a long shadow of WTF over the rest of the story for me.
The crudity. Granted that Shakespeare is frequently crude, especially with his clowns, and this is all about a clown, but even so, I found the constant torrent of obscenities and onslaught of rude jokes grating. This is not erotica: the author is coy about describing actual sex. But if you took out all the obscenities, sex jokes, talk about anatomy, and scatlogical references out, you'd probably cut about a third of the book and 80% of the humor. Honestly, it is a true testament to Moore's skill that he could pack SO MUCH crudeness into a book and have me like it ANYWAY. I still found the juvenile humor tedious, but I was able to overlook it and enjoy the book.
Oh, and the book runs on dead-woman fuel. I never used to notice how much fiction does. ("Need to motivate your male protagonist? Kill off his mother/wife/daughter!") But once it was pointed out to me, I realized it was everywhere and it's really tiresome. *sigh*
Anyway, I'll give it a 7 overall. I might give another Moore book a try sometime. They can't all be powered by rapist monsters and dead women, so they'll have that much going for them. I'm kinda worried the juvenile humor is a permanent fixture, alas.
* Also, if you want to alienate me, refering to clearly NOT CONSENSUAL sexual abuse as "sex" is a great start. In case you were wondering.