The Serpent's Shadow
by Mercedes Lackey
Review by Kat Bittner
DAW Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0886779154
Date: 01 March 2001 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
The prolific and popular fantasy writer, Lackey, presents her latest offering, another novel length re-telling of a familiar fairy tale (in the manner of "The Firebird", "The Black Swan" and "The Fire Rose"). This time the source in question derives from "Snow White", imaginatively set in the unusual locale of Edwardian London with Hindu religion and culture forming the backdrop.
In the year 1909, 23 year-old Dr. Maya Witherspoon, her Indian Brahmin mother and English father both deceased due to mysterious and suspicious circumstances, opens her practice in London hoping that she has found refuge from the furious vengeance of her Aunt Shivani (the evil stepmother analog), a magically empowered devotee of the Goddess Kali. Shivani's hatred of Maya stems from her belief that her parents' mixed marriage represents a deadly insult to her high-caste family. Maya also possesses uncanny abilities inherited from her father and her mother, the latter also bequeathing to her care a collection of preternaturally intelligent and devoted animal companions (the 7 dwarves analog), that turn out to be avatars of various Hindu gods and goddesses.
Gifted with enormous Earth Magic potential, but deficient in training, the protagonist's powerful but amateurish supernatural defenses arouse the notice of London's White Lodge who comprise a coterie of secret guardians against evil who practice a fascinating system of magery based on the Western/Pagan/Classical conception of the 4 elements. They dispatch former sea captain (now antiquities dealer) and Water Mage, Peter Scott, to investigate. He finds Maya bravely facing prejudice both for being a woman and a half-breed with only prostitutes and the poor willing to be her patients. Having more tolerance and open-minded curiosity than the usual Englishman, Peter eagerly undertakes to teach Maya the techniques of his methods of magery which she enthusiastically absorbs finding these new skills not too dissimilar to the magic she surreptitiously uses to make her healing more effective.
The inevitable romance that develops between Peter and Maya grows out of mutual respect and their natural affinity for each other--an enlightened relationship for the time and place but believably portrayed.
Meanwhile, Shivani has followed her enemy to London, taking up residence and sending forth her sorcery and her thuggee servants to wreak havoc on the British and on Maya. Before the power of Kali devastates London, Maya and Peter must convince the Lodge Masters to aid them. The suspense builds up to a rousing climax that involves some of Maya's special new-found friends, the animal septet, some unexpected allies, and wizardly pyrotechnics that include the heroine's discovering the strength of her own skills.
Lackey superbly depicts Edwardian London and Maya's Indian background, comparing/contrasting the two cultures most delightfully by portraying their respective magic systems with focus upon the Western Elemental school native to the setting. Lackey fans will be pleased to note that The Serpent's Shadow features the same style of sorcery used in the novel The Fire Rose (also set in the same time period but in San Francisco). The story gains much depth and social relevance thanks to Lackey's entertaining way of drawing the reader's attention to the historical significance of the milieu's time period. She does this by involving the heroine in: the plight of the poor in post-industrial revolution England; the women's suffrage movement; the social upheavals of empire building, colonialization and the resultant discrimination with which Maya must cope along with sexism in competing to practice medicine and surgery.
Lackey's characterizations, also excellent, depict plausibly motivated, memorable folks and a worthy antagonist. It should be noted that the author's copious writing output under deadline pressure has produced two glaring anachronisms in the text: Peter referring to King Tut's tomb and its objects that wouldn't be discovered until 1923 and characters quoting Antoine de St. Exupery who was only 9 in 1909 and not yet capable of writing anything that could be cited! This sort of sloppiness takes very little effort to prevent and here exemplifies the danger of rushing to meet too many obligations. This flaw notwithstanding, The Serpent's Shadow with its vivid background, detailed descriptions of elemental magic, especially the way Maya used it for healing, and its exciting plot (a more unusual "Snow White" variant would be hard to find), well rewards the reader who allows Maya and company to cast a spell on them.