Serpent’s Shadow, by Mercedes Lackey (Daw, 2001)

I’ve always had a soft spot for the works of Mercedes Lackey. I discovered her soon after her first book, Arrows of the Queen, first in her long-running Heralds of Valdemar series, came out, and I stuck with her as she finished out that trilogy and launched into dozens of subsequent books. It’s safe to say that she was one of those authors who kept me relatively sane in high school, her works challenging my imagination, and her collaborations with other authors introducing me to such talents as Josepha Sherman, Mark Shepherd, Holly Lisle, and others. In fact, I think her works provided the backbone of my fantasy reading for a good four years, at the very least. I went to my very first real science fiction convention because she was the guest of honor that year. (A day visit to a previous con doesn’t count, since I wasn’t there long enough to really get the full experience on my own.)

I met Mercedes (or Misty) several more times in the years to come, usually finding her with her husband and writing partner, Larry Dixon, running into them at enough cons that they remembered me. That was then. In the years following, my tastes changed, and I no longer found myself reading as much of her work. For whatever reason, they didn’t have the same feel, or appeal, they once did. And Misty and Larry stopped attending the same conventions I did. So in a way, we parted ways somewhere along the road.

However, if you’ve seen my recent reviews of her last two releases, Brightly Burning and Beyond World’s End, you’ll probably have come to the same realization I have. Just because the roads split off doesn’t mean they can’t come back together once in a while. For whatever reason, Misty’s relit that fire in my imagination, revisiting the Heralds of Valdemar and Bedlam Bards, two of my favorite Misty Lackey series, and now proving that she’s still got unrevealed tricks in her bag with the stand-alone novel, The Serpent’s Shadow. See? There’s a method to my madness. It’s important to understand that with this book, she’s officially three for three in my opinion, and I’ll once again be eagerly awaiting her next books.

Set in the unbelievably exotic (by our standards) era of 1909 London, The Serpent’s Shadow conjures up the full force of the British Empire, when the sun never set upon it (because who’d trust the English in the dark?), when men were most assuredly men, women were suffragettes or second-class citizens, and horses were scared (of those newfangled motorized contraptions!).

About the worst thing you could be in that time and place was -not- white, male, upper-class, and British. So, for instance, a twenty-five-year-old half-Indian female doctor would be as out of place as a penguin in the Sahara. And about as welcome.

Nonetheless, that’s where our heroine, the good Doctor Maya Witherspoon, finds herself. After the death of her English father and Indian mother, she’s come ‘home’ to London, to do what good she can as a doctor, working as a women’s surgeon at St. Mary’s Hospital, as an all-around doctor at the Fleet Street free clinic, and in her own private practice, one dedicated to handling … well, women’s complaints. Those of a very delicate, and often illegal, nature. (Read: handing out birth control pamphlets, and helping the undeserving poor, the pickpockets, prostitutes, dancers, harlots, and scum of the streets.)

With her she’s brought the remnants of her family’s household, including the butler/bodyguard, Gupta, and her mother’s pets, who in themselves would constitute a small zoo. There’s Charan the monkey, Sia and Singhe the mongooses, Rhadi the parrot, Nisha the owl, Mala the falcon and Rajah the peacock. Unusually smart and perceptive, they hold the keys to some of Maya’s mother’s greatest secrets.

Life would be just fine, were it not for a few small, even inconsequential details.

Maya is a mage, what the British practitioners of magic would call an Earth Master. A healer, drawing her strength from the earth around her, and from the very land itself. Untrained and inexperienced, all of her work is done haphazardly, through instinct and patchwork.

She’s attracted the attentions of a secret society of British mages, who refuse to teach her on the grounds that she’s half-blooded Indian -and- a woman. Only one of them, a former sailor turned merchant, and Water Master, dares go against his fellows to work with Maya.

She’s developed enemies at work, in the form of a particularly racist, rude, arrogant man who’ll stop at nothing to ruin her.

She’s brought a dark and deadly enemy from home, a devout worshipper of Kali Durga, who dreams of destroying Maya, and then destroying all those Englishmen who’d dare mistreat India and its natives. This woman, “the serpent’s shadow,” may be the cause of Maya’s father’s death, and is certainly the reason Maya fled India and went into a sort of exile in London.

If this enemy finds Maya, there’ll be all manner of Hell to pay.

The true test of Maya’s abilities looms on the horizon as her enemies close in, and her training takes new and unexpected roads. If her allies can’t rally in time, she’ll be dead, and Kali, the dark Hindu goddess of death and destruction and chaos, will have unprecedented power in the modern world.

I was hooked from the start by the strong and complex character of Maya Witherspoon and the enigmas she represented, and by the richly detailed time and place the story was set in. It was a welcome and refreshing change from the norm, and I wouldn’t mind seeing more stories set in such fertile ground.

Certainly not a politically correct period or society, it was a vastly different world than the one we know.

The Serpent’s Shadow is gripping; once I started, I couldn’t stop reading until I was too tired to turn the pages. This is Mercedes Lackey in fine form, perhaps the best she’s been in years. I highly recommend it as one of those fantasies that tries something different and succeeds. She was able to flesh out 1909 London to the point where I could all but smell it, and I could easily believe in, and cheer for, the main characters. Even the minor ones had their moments of glory and unique characterization. It’s been a while, but I’m glad Misty’s back. I missed her. This is a book worth picking up, even in hardcover. And as a bonus, it comes with an absolutely stunning, gorgeous cover by Jody Lee, who’s done many of Lackey’s books. So go check it out for yourselves.

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