Sunday, April 08, 2001

Review: "The Serpent's Shadow" by Mercedes Lackey

Mercedes Lackey is one of the most respected names in fantasy fiction, but she hasn't always been a favorite of mine. In fact, Lackey has always been hit-and-miss with me. Some of her stories have been grand tales with likeable characters and fabulous settings, while others have just seemed to fall flat, pale imitations of her better works.

Lackey's latest, "The Serpent's Shadow" (DAW), is a slight departure from her usual fare. The multi-layered tale is set in 19th-century London and deals with very real issues as well as fantastic ones.

Maya Witherspoon is the daughter of an English doctor and a Brahmin lady, who - following the mysterious deaths of her parents - has fled to London to pursue her own career as a physician. In London, she is subjected to a double-dose of prejudice because of her gender as well as her mixed Indian-English heritage.

Maya doesn't let the racism and sexism of the time bar her from pursuing her goals. Instead, she goes to the toughest doctor in London to seek her certification, so no one can doubt her credentials. But someone besides the medical community has taken an interest in her.

The elemental masters who control magic in England have taken notice of her strange magical wards, and send one of their own, Peter Scott, to investigate her. After meeting Maya, Peter is convinced that she has the ability to become an Earth Master, an area in which the white lodge is severely lacking. He tries to convince others in the lodge that Maya should be trained, but unfortunately, many of them hold the same prejudices.

Scott takes it upon himself and his "twin" in the lodge, Lord Peter Almsley, to train Maya as much as possible in her abilities. But now another threat has surfaced. A dark and mysterious magic has found its way into the city. Shivani, a follower of Kali, has unleashed the Shadow Serpent on an unsuspecting London both to seek revenge on the English and to settle some unfinished business with her niece, Maya.

"The Serpent's Shadow" is really three stories rolled into one.

First there's the mainstream story of Maya's struggles in the medical field, as she tries to break into a male-dominated profession and bring some much needed compassion to medicine. Maya treats patients that no one else will see and is often derided for her actions - such as trying to save limbs that others would amputate or attempting to remove an inflamed appendix from a woman who is seven months pregnant without harming the child. Along the way she makes enemies who could easily end her career.

Then there's the story of Maya's burgeoning magical ability and her relationship with Peter Scott who is trying to put her on the path to becoming an Earth Master. Here she faces some of the same challenges as in her medical career - men who don't want to see women as their equals. The difference here is that her enemies could end much more than her career.

Finally, there's Shivani, who is obsessed with vengeance on the English for their trespasses in India. Her dark arts are responsible for the death of Maya's parents, and she's followed Maya to London to finish the job. When the white lodge bungles its protections against Shivani's magic, it's up to Maya and Peter to deal with her. But Maya discovers she has some magical help of her own. The "pets" that she inherited from her mother are much more than they appear.

Each of the three stories would be intriguing on its own, but Lackey deftly weaves them into a complex and very satisfying novel. This easily ranks as one of her best efforts.

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