on March 1, 2001
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Also in this series: The Gates of Sleep, Phoenix and Ashes, Home from the Sea, Steadfast, Elemental Magic:, Blood Red, From a High Tower, A Study in Sable
From the magical mysteries of India to the gaslit streets of Victorian London, Mercedes Lackey's unique departure from her Valdemar series follows a young woman doctor as she searches for the secret behind the sorcery in her blood.
The Serpent’s Shadow is the first (or second*) book in Mercedes Lackey’s “Elemental Masters” series, and one of the best. It’s also one of the cleverest retold fairy tales I’ve come across.** In this case, the fairy tale is “Snow White”, and Lackey draws inspiration from the basic plot while turning many of the traditional elements on their heads: Snow White is not “white” but the daughter of an English doctor and a high-caste Indian woman; the dwarves become her pet birds and animals (and perhaps more), and the evil stepmother is now a vengeful aunt.
One of Mercedes Lackey‘s strengths is the construction of believable and (mostly) internally consistent systems of magic, and the Elemental Masters series is no exception. Here, magic follows the ancient premise of the four Elements: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Mages are born with an affinity to one element, and magical power comes in part from the “elementals” or magical creatures associated with that element, whether willingly through alliance and friendship, or through coercion.
The story takes place in Edwardian London, where the young and recently orphaned Dr. Maya Witherspoon has fled to escape an unknown enemy. Lackey paints a vivid if not always perfectly historical picture of 1909 London, weaving in the appalling conditions in hospitals and among the poor, the women’s suffrage movement and attitudes toward women, divisions between social classes, and issues of English imperialism. A bonus for lovers of British mystery is the inclusion of a secondary character quite clearly based on Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey. (He reappears in one or two of the later books in the series, and becomes a main character in Unnatural Issue.)
Lackey excels at writing strong female characters, and Maya is no exception. Lackey also tends to create male characters who are a match for those women, who appreciate their strengths and are willing to be equal partners. No Snow White tale would be complete without a kiss from the handsome prince, but in The Serpent’s Shadow, the “prince” has much more to do than simply kiss the princess awake, and Maya is far from a passive princess, even under the witch’s spell.
For its likable, believable characters, clever re-creation of traditional fairy tale elements, and overall enjoyable storytelling, The Serpent’s Shadow remains among my favorite of Lackey’s non-Valdemar books.
* The first book, The Fire Rose (published by Baen Books), takes place in California, and has no ties to the rest of the series except the magic “structure” and the fact that all are loosely based on fairy tales. The Serpent’s Shadow and all following books were published by DAW. Several of the later books do reference or include characters from The Serpent’s Shadow, most notably Phoenix and Ashes and Unnatural Issue. Therefore, The Serpent’s Shadow is considered by some to be the first in the series.
** and I’ve read a fair few. I’m quite fond of fairy tales, whether retold or straight up.