The Serpents Shadow (Elemental Masters, Book 1)

ISBN 10: 0886779154 / ISBN 13: 9780886779153
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Synopsis: Maya Witherspoon had lived most of the first twenty-five years of her life in her native India. As the daughter of a prominent British physician and a Brahmin woman of the highest caste, she had known only luxury. Trained by her father in the medical arts since she was old enough to read, she graduated from the University of Delhi as a Doctor of Medicine by the age of twenty-two. Welcomed into her father’s lucrative practice, she treated many of the wives and daughters of the British military personnel who made up a large percentage of their patients in the colonial India of 1909.

But the science of medicine was not Maya’s only heritage. For Maya’s aristocratic mother Surya, had not just defied her family, friends and religion to marry Maya’s father, she had turned her back on her family’s powerful magical traditions as well. For her mother was a sorceress—a former priestess of the mystical magics fueled by the powerful and fearsome pantheon of Indian gods.

Though Maya felt the stirring of magic in her blood, her mother had repeatedly refused to train her. “I cannot,” she had said, her eyes dark with distress, whenever Maya asked. “Yours is the magic of your father’s blood, not mine....” Surya had never had the chance to explain this enigmatic statement to her daughter, before cholera claimed her life. Yet Maya suspected that something far more sinister than the virulent disease had overcome her powerful mother.

But it was Maya’s father’s death shortly thereafter which confirmed her darkest suspicions. For her father was killed by the bite of a krait, a tiny venomous snake, and in the last hours of her mother’s life, in the seeming delirium of her fever, Surya had repeatedly warned Maya to beware “the serpent’s shadow.” With the sudden loss of her father, Maya knew she must flee the land of her birth or face the same fate as her parents.

In self-imposed exile in London, Maya surrounded herself with every protection possible. All the magic Maya knew had been learned by covertly observing her mother, and by cobbling this knowledge together with the street-magic gleaned from a few genuine fakirs. Her workings were a mixture of instinct, extrapolation, and trial-and-error. Crude, but somewhat effective, her spells let Maya hide her household behind a wall of secrecy in a poorer section of the city. Here, in a small but adequate house she lived with only the most loyal of her mother’s servants, and her mother’s seven unusual “pets”—if you could use such a word for creatures who seemed far more like friends. For Charan, the little monkey, Rajah, the peacock, Mala, the falcon, Sia and Singhe, the mongooses, Rhadi, the parrot, and Nisha, the owl seemed far too sentient to be ordinary animals. Maya knew that these seven unusual and loving companions had been in some way special to her mother, but their secrets were hidden to her, perhaps forever.

In her new home she fought the dual prejudices against her sex and her race to continue in her medical profession. Only her high scholastic abilities and her extreme determination enabled her to meet with any success. She managed to place herself in a minor position at a prestigious hospital while she pursued her own medical passions: helping the poor at a tiny clinic where they welcomed any doctor, and setting up a small, controversial practice which specialized in “female complaints” and offered “absolute discretion.”

But Maya knew that she could not hide forever from the vindictive power which had murdered her parents. She knew in her heart that even a vast ocean couldn’t protect her from “the serpent’s shadow” which had so terrified her mother. Her only hope was to find a way to master her own magic: the magic of her father’s blood. But who...

Review: Mercedes Lackey returns to form in The Serpent's Shadow, the fourth in her sequence of reimagined fairy tales. This story takes place in the London of 1909, and is based on "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." Lackey creates echoes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, pays affectionate homage to Dorothy Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey (who plays an important role under a thin disguise), and turns the dwarves into seven animal avatars who masquerade as pets of her Eurasian heroine, Maya.

Some of Maya's challenges come from the fact that she is not "snow white," and she has fled India for her father's English homeland after the suspicious deaths of her parents. Establishing her household in London, she returns to her profession as a physician, working among the poor. Her "pets" and loyal servants stand guard, and Maya herself uses what bits of magic she managed to pick up in childhood to weave otherworldly defenses as well. But the implacable enemy who killed her parents has come to London to search for her; if Maya can be enslaved, her enormous potential powers can be used to the enemy's ends. Fortunately, English magicians of the White Lodge have also noted a new, powerful presence in their midst, though they're having trouble locating her, too. They send Peter Scott, a Water Master, to track her down. He finds Maya beautiful and benign, and is determined to teach her to use the Western magic she is heir to, before her enemy discovers her.

Some will find the author's Kiplingesque descriptions of India and Hindustani culture offensive. Lackey describes Maya's enemy as a powerful devotee of the goddess Kali-Durga, though she carefully shows that the avatars of the other deities will not attack her, and has Kali-Durga repudiate her servant in the climactic confrontation. And, though the story is layered, its surface is as glossy and brightly colored as an action comic. But readers who enjoy late Victorian London, Sayers, Sherlock Holmes stories, and a page-turning tale will want to take this one home. --Nona Vero

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