Title: The Serpent’s Shadow (Elemental Masters #2)
Author: Mercedes Lackey
Year of Publication: 2001
Length: 400 pages
Genre: historical fantasy
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3.5 stars
One of the best things about Lackey, I think, is her ability to take a fairy-tale inspiration and then tell a story that goes so immensely far beyond that origin. The Serpent’s Shadow is loosely based on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. And boy, do I mean loosely.
To start with, the heroine has anything but “skin as white as snow”. Maya Witherspoon is a half-Indian aspiring doctor, the daughter of a British army doctor and his mystically-inclined Indian wife. She’s had to flee from India to London for reasons she doesn’t even fully understand at first, but which she will later learn have to do with her mother’s dark twin, Shivani, a priestess of Kali Durga. Shivani has been hellbent for years on punishing her sister for marrying an Englishman. She managed to murder Maya’s parents and thought she got Maya as well. Instead of seven dwarves, Maya has seven “pets” for companionship, inherited from her mother: an owl, a falcon, a peacock, a parrot, a gray langur, and a pair of mongooses.
Much of the story follows Maya’s twin ambitions of gaining acceptance as a doctor and of learning to wield English magic — the Elemental Magic introduced in The Fire Rose. She faces challenges on both fronts because of her sex and her ancestry. The former plot ties in with some nice details about the suffragette movement in Edwardian England, as Maya’s friend Amelia, a medical student, is deeply involved with the cause. The latter introduces us to the socio-political structure of magic users in this version of England — the White Lodge, a group of men, mostly wealthy and aristocratic, based in London, who keep tabs on all magic-users in the country. They’re at first puzzled by Maya, who uses a form of magic they don’t quite understand — she’s applying western magic, inherited from her father, with eastern methods, learned in her homeland. It confuses them tremendously, so they send a member to investigate — Water Master Peter Scott, who only barely makes the grade of “gentleman” by virtue of having been a ship’s captain, and who’s been begging the Lodge to bring some women and more Earth Masters (usually country yeomen, not city aristocrats) into the fold. Finding out that Maya has phenomenal talent to become an Earth Master, he sets about teaching her to use her talents.
As with most of Lackey’s books, the endgame plays out a bit quickly, but (as usual) I’m willing to forgive that. What’s great about this book is that, more fully than The Fire Rose, it integrates magic with normal life. In The Fire Rose, the main characters exist in such isolation that you don’t get to fully see how magic users live and work and deal with the rest of humanity. In The Serpent’s Shadow, it’s a central concern — how to perform magic without freaking anyone out, how to use it to help without being obvious about it, and how to stop someone who’s using it to harm the unwary. Maya is particularly clever, blending her Earth Magic together with her skills as a doctor (and later in the book, we see Water and Fire work together towards the same purpose, in an intriguing example of how the different disciplines can compliment each other). She uses magic sometimes to help with her diagnoses, as illness can show itself to her. We also get to see her using magic as protection, and the concept gets a more thorough explanation here than it did in the vagueness of The Fire Rose. I appreciate the “nuts and bolts” look at how the magic actually works.
So, overall, I enjoy this installment in the Elemental Masters series, not only for its plot and characters, but for the further exploration of how magic in this world operates. It’s nothing outstanding, but it’s worth the read if you like the idea of magical realism, particularly in a historical setting. It’s a great twist on a fairy tale, a thoroughly inventive re-imagining.