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Literature / The Serpent's Shadow

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The first book in Mercedes Lackey's Elemental Masters series. Dr. Maya Witherspoon, daughter of a British ex-pat and a Brahmin priestess, has come to London from India because she suspects that a malevolent supernatural force killed her father and is now targeting her. She's never had any formal magical training, but she uses what she does know and can make work to protect herself and her household while operating as a doctor against the sexism of the Edwardian period. Only, the evil that she fled India to escape has followed her to Britain, and she's going to need allies...

Not to be confused with the third book of The Kane Chronicles.


  • Alliterative Family: Surya and Shivani, Theme Twin Naming sisters.
  • Ambiguously Evil: We don't know what is up with Kali Durga. She does eventually kill Shivani for the crimes the priestess commits in her name, but it's not clear whether She approves of the thugees and Human Sacrifice in the normal course of business; Shivani's death may be a case of Even Evil Has Standards or Good All Along.
  • Army of Thieves and Whores: In The Serpent's Shadow, many of the local criminals of the East End owe Maya a blood debt, and guard her house as diligently as her not-actually-a-Gurkha manservant. When Maya is kidnapped at the climax, some of the footpads join Peter's rescue army because of this. Others join because he's promised them the rights to plunder Shivani's temple.
  • Back-Alley Doctor: Dr. Maya Witherspoon fits the "highly trained and well-equipped criminal" version. She’s a fully-qualified doctor and surgeon, with a perfectly respectable clinic. She also volunteers at a clinic in one of the rougher neighborhoods of London, holds late office hours for the convenience of several courtesans/mistresses among her patients, and is willing to provide any female patient with contraception (illegal at the time).
  • Chekhov's Gunman: The Irish doctor Maya works with shows up at the climax, saving Maya's life with his fire magic. This gets a lampshade in that Peter wonders how they don't know of a Fire Master in the city, and the doctor simply snarks that Irishmen are too common for Alderscroft's circle.
  • Closest Thing We Got: Subverted. Maya joining the Lodge is treated as this by Alderscroft, since he doesn't think women are capable of it but no other Earth Master can live in London. Of course, anyone with a brain can tell Maya is perfectly qualified to join the Lodge, and most hope that her joining will lead to other capable women joining as well.
  • Dishing Out Dirt: Maya is that rare Earth Master who's completely comfortable with living in a city.
  • Dude, She's Like in a Coma: Averted. The typical "kiss the sleeping princess" part still happens, but this time Maya is astral projecting where Peter can see her and gives her consent.
  • Everybody Hates Hades: Subverted with Kali Durga. Her priestess and cult are the antagonists, but they're clearly not instruments of her will, simply fundamentalists twisting religion to their own ends like any other religion could have. In her one appearance, she's far more ambiguous than good or evil, although she does disapprove of Shivani near the end.
  • Evil Aunt: Shivani wants to kill her niece because her very existence allegedly "pollutes" their bloodline.
  • Evil Twin: Shivani was Surya's identical twin. She may have killed Surya, definitely killed her husband, and spends the whole book trying to track down and kill Maya as well.
  • Fairy Tale: The plot is a retelling of Snow White.
  • Florence Nightingale Effect: Paul Jenner and Doctor Amelia.
  • Force Feeding: Learning that this was being done to the suffragettes is what prompted Maya to publicly join their cause.
  • Fourth-Date Marriage: Only a few months pass between Maya and Peter Scott meeting and their wedding. Later books show it's common among Elemental magicians.
  • The Fundamentalist: Shivani and her agents.
  • God Was My Copilot: Maya's Indian pets are all avatars of Hindu gods and goddesses. They manifest powers in the finale; most notably, Charam the monkey turns into Hanuman himself, complete with spear.
  • Good Girls Avoid Abortion: This becomes an issue when Maya has to operate on a pregnant Irishwoman with an inflamed appendix. It's mentioned that most doctors would just remove the uterus and fetus to get them out of the way, but Maya respects her patient's Catholic beliefs enough to work around them, to the disdain of the watching students. That said, given what she gets up to in her after hours clinics work, it's likely that Maya personally doesn't see anything wrong with abortion when it's the mother's decision, but in this case the mother explicitly did not want one, even at the risk of her own life.
  • Half-Breed Discrimination: Maya Witherspoon's mother ran away from her wealthy Brahmin family to wed an English doctor and army officer, so she gets it from both sides.
  • Heal It With Fire: The Irish doctor and Fire Master uses this to help purify Maya's bloodstream after she's been poisoned.
  • Hero of Another Story: Lord Peter Almsley is up to a fair bit off-page on Maya and the other Peter's part, and the epilogue is a letter from him to his grandmother.
  • Holier Than Thou: The characters have a few sharp words for churchmen who think that charity should only be given to "the deserving poor" who adhere to middle-class values despite being unable to afford them. Maya is introduced to a bishop who turns out to be an aversion, being a genuinely kind man with a lively sense of humour.
  • Honor-Related Abuse: Shivani kills her sister Surya and Surya's English husband, as well as trying to kill their daughter, in order to cleanse the shame of Surya's mixed marriage from the family line.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Norry, who also moonlights as a pickpocket.
  • Incompletely Trained: At the beginning, Maya has never had any formal training in Western magic, which is a problem as that's where her power is oriented, not that she knows this initially. She also doesn't know that much about Indian magic because her mother didn't teach her formally.
  • In Vino Veritas: Alluded to when Maya Witherspoon brings a young man injured on the orders of one of the book's villains to the Fleet Street Clinic. The head nurse is worried about the attraction he shows to a female medical student/clinic volunteer, until Maya points out that there's just as much truth in a quarter-grain of morphine as there is in wine.
  • Light Feminine and Dark Feminine: The twin sisters. Surya was gentle, loving and maternal, while Shivani is vicious, vindictive and cruel.
  • Magic Kiss: Peter uses a kiss empowered by seven Hindu gods to revive Maya.
  • Magic Mirror: Shivani has a magic mirror called a dark mirror (understandable, since this is an adaptation of the Snow White tale). Said mirror is horror of the And I Must Scream variety — she uses it to imprison the ghost of a man she sacrifices and tortures him constantly to insanity then slavish devotion so he can be useful to her. And she planned to do this to the heroine...
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: Maya's parents. Maya and her mother were looked down as inferior by the British expats in India and barred from pretty much all of the social institutions. And for all that, the British were still more accepting of the marriage than Surya's family was...
  • Occupiers Out of Our Country: One of Shivani's motivations is to throw the English out of India.
  • Parental Abandonment: The death of Maya's magician mother quickly led to the death of her father (since she had concealed him from a common enemy who objected to their marriage). The story opens after Maya has relocated to Victorian London in the hopes of escaping her family's enemy.
  • Politically Incorrect Hero: Alderscroft bars women and commoners from his Lodge. His refusal to tangle with foreign magic also limits his ability to get involved.
  • Post-Modern Magik: Dr. Witherspoon's arcane talents and senses are invaluable in determining what newnote  medical theories actually work, while her knowledge of anatomy and the process of the disease enables her application of Healing Hands to properly cure a case of tuberculosis.
  • Race Lift: Maya Witherspoon, the series' version of Snow White, is English-Indian mixed race.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Though they're both Water Masters, Peter Almsey and Peter Scott definitely count.
  • Religion is Magic: The Hindu gods are very active in this book.
  • Selkies and Wereseals: The Selkies of Sule Skerry get a mention. With their way of life endangered by social and technological progress, things were looking bleak for them; then Peter Scott helped ten young Selkie men acquire brides (by somehow finding ten honest, clean-hearted girls among the streetwalkers of London), as well as acting as an intermediary to build houses for the girls and ensure they're well-provided-for in mortal coin. In return, the Selkies provide Peter with concentrated magical power upon request.
  • Series Continuity Error:
    • The book cannot make up its mind about the name of Maya's father. He is mentioned by name twice. The first time his name is Nigel, the second time his name is Roger.
    • The Peters get a thorough report about Parkening's unsavory occult activities from his recently discharged servant and report it to Alderscroft almost immediately, but a few months later Alderscroft appears to not know the name when he's reported missing, and when Scott informs him that the missing man was a bad egg, the first thing that comes to mind was his assaulting Maya in a linen closet rather than the stuff that should have had the Lodge actively tracking his activities for some time.
  • Smoky Gentlemen's Club: The Lodge is covered as this. It actually works to their disadvantage, as they instinctively refuse to accept any magicians who wouldn't meet the club standards join - Peter Scott is the only non-upper class member, purely because he was too powerful to pass up, and they glossed over his origins by claiming that his former status as a ship's captain made him a gentleman - which at the start of the book causes them to have no Earth mages, as the only ones in London are female or lower class. Alderscroft loosens the recruitment standards at the end of the book.
  • Talking Animal: Maya's seven "pets" when possessed by the Hindu gods they're associated with. And the parrot whenever it wants to.
  • Uncle Pennybags: Lord Peter Almsley, who casually hands Dr. Maya Witherspoon enough money to fund the Fleet charity clinic for a month without a care. Apparently this is one of his hobbies.
  • Widow's Weeds: Maya is introduced wearing mourning for her recently deceased parents, and plans to prolong the year of mourning as long as possible, since even a brute would hesitate to insult a woman of mixed race if she's in mourning.
  • Worthless Foreign Degree: Maya was a practicing doctor in India for several years, but when she moves to London she has to retake her medical exams and be interviewed by the head of the hospital she wants to practice at.