The Serpent's Shadow, by Mercedes Lackey

>> Tuesday, July 18, 2006

2006 has so far been a wonderful reading year for me. I've read quite a few new-to-me books that I rated in the A range, and one of them was Mercedes Lackey's The Fire Rose, the first book in her Elemental Masters series.

Even though I was warned that the other books Lackey set in that universe weren't quite as wonderful, no way I wasn't going to give them a try. After all, a book doesn't need to be an A book to be very enjoyable!

Anyway, the next book is The Serpent's Shadow (excerpts, etc). Apparently it's actually considered by some the first in a series, and not a sequel to The Fire Rose (some kind of contractual reason, maybe? The Fire Rose was published by Baen, while the others are DAW releases), but most people do see it as the second in the Elemental Masters series, and well they should.

As a physician operating among London's poor in the early years of the 20th century, Dr. Maya Witherspoon has two strikes against her her gender and her status as the half-breed daughter of an Englishman and a Hindu woman. The magic she possesses, however, assists her not only in her work but also in fighting off an assassin bent on destroying her through the use of dark powers. The author of the popular "Valdemar" series turns her hand to historical fantasy in this intriguing and compelling re-creation of England in the waning days of its imperial glory.
I have to agree with everyone who says The Fire Rose is best in the series. However, The Serpent's Shadow comes very, very close. A B+.

Maya Witherspoon is a half-Indian doctor trying to practise in London in the early 20th century. She's also an Elemental Magician, an Earth mage, and uses her power to help her in her healing. She learned her magic in India, so it's different from the usual Western Magic, which she knows very little about. Add to this her lack of formal training, because she learned almost by instinct, and the magic emanating from her place of residence feels weird to English magicians.

Which is why the White Lodge, a London group of male magicians, send member Peter Scott to find the source of the powerful magic they see coming from a run-down area of the city but cannot locate. Peter, much more open-minded than many of his colleagues in the Lodge, is immediately fascinated by Maya and offers to help her by giving her some formal training. And a good thing, too, because Maya's evil Indian aunt has come to London and means to harm her, so she needs all the help she can get.

Maya is an absolutely wonderful character. I loved how she was so sensible and resourceful and strong, a brand of strength that didn't translate to a hard-headed insistence on doing everything by herself, but made her receptive to honest offers of help, like Peter's. And her tactics for establishing her medical practice were nothing short of brilliant. Very, very smart lady, too.

And Peter, oh, Peter! While Maya is very definitely the protagonist of the story, her hero is a very good one. I found it very refreshing that it is THIS Peter, the former sailor and ship's captain, the current shop-owner, and not the other Peter character, his friend, the powerful aristocrat, who is the hero. And speaking of the other Peter, our Peter's "Twin": was he Lord Peter Wimsey? Way too many coincidences for it to be a coincidence, lol, including those letters at the end!

The romance was subtle, but very nice. I liked how it was so very sweet and innocent feeling... no heavy breathing here (not that I don't like heavy breathing, when done well, but in this book it worked that it wasn't there). Peter is a sweetie, and his shyness with Maya was adorable. I would have liked more development (obviously! I mean, I'm not a romance novel fan for nothing!), but I loved what there was there of their romance. I especially enjoyed how both of them were so *proper* about it all!

The setting was just as wonderful as the characters. Not only was it interesting, but it felt aesthetically gorgeous. Lackey managed to paint some really beautiful pictures in my mind. The Indian element was especially fascinating. I've no idea how authentic the whole thing was (especially the way Shivani and devotion to Kali-Durga are depicted)... probably not much, from the comments I've heard, but I liked it.

I also liked getting a sense of the issues of the time, especially the difficulties faced by women who didn't just want to stay at home and be wifes and mothers. Women like Maya and her friend Amelia, and the rest of the sufragettes, basically. I'm probably going to sound very shallow for saying this, but usually I prefer to avoid books with this theme, not because I don't think it's important, but because reading about a woman facing extreme discrimination and sexism upsets me too much for me to enjoy the book very much. Here it was fine, basically because while Maya does face these difficulties, her magic and her financial position mean that she faces them from a position of strength, even though her race adds yet another reason for bigots to discriminate against her.

All the stuff about the White Lodge -the Elemental Magic aspect- was good, very well done. I liked the element of discovery of the whole magic present in Fire Rose, but this was great, too.

The main negative in this book was the villain. She was interesting, don't get me wrong, but I really would have appreciated more motivation for the her evilness. Why did she turn so extremely dark? Why did she hate her sister so much? There's just not enough background for this!

While The Fire Rose was very obviously based on the Beauty and the Beast story, this one had a Snow White theme, but it was less obvious. If I hadn't been looking for it, I probably only would have caught on at the end, when Peter comes back to Maya's house (you'll know what I mean if you've read the book), though the mirror thing might have given me a clue. Oh, and the seven dwarves! I've only now realized that! Apparentely, the next one (which I'll start immediately), The Gates of Sleep, is based on Sleeping Beauty, then Phoenix and Ashes on Cinderella, and finally The Wizard of London on The Snow Queen.

The thing about fairy tales is how easily they can turn into rescue fantasies, with heroines who do nothing but wait for the hero to come, but I'm hopeful Lackey will continue to approach her stories from angles which avoid this.


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