Author: Mercedes Lackey, 2001.
Genre: Alternative History. Fantasy. Re-told Fairy Tale.
Other Details: Paperback. 394 pages. Unabridged Audiobook (12 hours, 46 mins). Read by Michelle Ford.
Very loosely based on 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and set in an slightly alternative 1909 London, its protagonist is Maya Witherspoon, the daughter of an English doctor and a high caste Indian woman, who has lived most of her life in India where she had studied medicine. Following the suspicious deaths of her parents Maya has relocated to London to continue her work as a doctor. She encounters prejudices due to her gender and mixed race but is determined to continue. While working at a London hospital she also has established a small private practice in her East End neighbourhood assisting local women.
However, Maya has a secret. She has inherited from her mother a powerful magical ability though her mother refused to train her saying enigmatically that Maya's magic linked to her father's bloodline. Maya also has a deadly enemy in the form of her aunt, Shivani, a dark sorceress and priestess of Kali Durga. Shivani hates the British with a passion and it is her intention to use her magic to kill as many of the former colonial officers as she can, drawing on the darkest magic. She also wants to destroy Maya and steal her magical power. Sensing her enemy has followed her to London, Maya has been able to establish some magical shields to cloak her location. However, their presence comes to the attention of the White Lodge, a body of magicians who practice elemental magic. They sent Captain Peter Scott, a Water Master, to investigate and he soon becomes a teacher and friend to Maya. Together they face the deadly threat presented by Shivani.
Usually I like to start with the first in a series but the numbering of this one has shifted over the years with some sites counting the 1995 The Fire Rose as the first but the majority listing as it as stand alone though set in the same alternative universe. However, Mercedes Lackey has since officially established the order of the series and other sites, such as Goodreads, have now followed her lead. I expect that I will read The Fire Rose one day but don't consider it necessary as there are no characters crossing over.
In terms of the 'Snow White' re-telling these are quite subtle though Shivani does have a magic mirror and the seven dwarves were quite cleverly depicted as the seven pets that Maya had inherited from her mother and brought with her from India. Issues such as colonialism, race, poverty and the status of women in the early 20th century are addressed though with a fairly light touch. The magic system itself was well realised and integrated with some real life occult details and personalities from the period. I look forward to more in the series.
Overall I certainly enjoyed it, though as I was listening to it discretely during quiet moments during my mornings at the zoo it took a couple of months to complete it. This resulted in the story feeling a little disjointed. This was me though rather than the novel and so after finishing I elected to do a quick re-read of my paperback copy. I had a few niggles about the setting but they were very minor and Lackey did preface the novel with a note asking the reader to humour her regarding historical inaccuracies. I had no problem with doing this.
Mercedes Lackey's page on 'The Serpent's Shadow' - includes detailed synopsis and Chapter 1.