Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Chinese Carved Ball

There's a moment in Mercedes Lackey's The Serpent's Shadow when the heroine, Maya, is looking at a Chinese carved ivory ball.  It's actually a solid piece of ivory carved to have a dozen free-floating balls one inside another -- like a matryoshka doll that you can't take apart.  That's the skill of it, of course, that the person who fashioned it used phenomenal skill to reach in and carve out the next smaller ball, all through the holes of the larger balls.

I saw one of these when I was a child and was entranced.  I own one now -- it's badly damaged and much smaller, but it looks a bit like this one in the Smithsonian -- and it still strikes me as miraculous that so much detail can be gotten into one object. 

It's not a very evocative object -- I can't imagine crying at the sight of one -- but that doesn't diminish from its impressiveness.

And that's precisely how I feel about The Serpent's Shadow.  It's not a moving book; there's not a lot of suspense and no angsty goodness.  But it is intricate and fascinating.

I'm convinced there are at least as many spheres in The Serpent's Shadow -- 12 different things going on in one book.
  1. A romance.  Hero, heroine, conflict, resolution, happy ending.  Not the most compelling romance, but it delivers.
  2. A thriller.  Villain with plans for world domination that have to be foiled, etc., etc.
  3. Fantasy.  The Serpent's Shadow is an Elemental Masters novel so there are mages whose power derives from one of the elements.
  4. A historical novel.  We get the Suffragettes, of course, but also the fashions of the time.  There are fun details, like Maya's disgust with the internal combustion engine, and the popularity of all things Egyptian following the excavation of King Tut's tomb.  My husband says that Lackey gets some details wrong, but so what if an apothecary would have dispensed pills in envelopes or boxes and not in bottles like we're used to.  I suspect she got a lot more right than wrong.
  5. A feminist tale, as are most (all?) of Lackey's books.  Maya is a doctor in Edwardian England, so she has to fight a lot of discrimination from that male-dominated field.
  6. A lesson in the history of medical practice.  Not too gory, though.
  7. A tract on racism against Asians.  Maya is the daughter of an English gentleman and an Indian woman, so she is ostracized by both Western and Eastern societies.  One Asian character reflects how at least in London there are others Hindus, whereas they would stand out far too much in America.
  8. At the same time, it's not a white-washed book.  My copy has a cover that depicts Maya accurately, as least as to her skin tone and appearance.  Of course, it's a painting (it would have been hard to get all the animals to sit still for the photograph), but I can't think that makes a difference.
  9. A workshop on Hindu religious beliefs, including the various deities.
  10. A treatise on the class structures of both Edwardian England and India, with the added fillip of the logical extension of class divides to the fantasy elements.  As a "half-breed," Maya is below even an Untouchable in India, and as a woman, she's unworthy in England.  But as an earth mage, she's not a lot better.  Lordly mages don't much like the hero, a former ship captain turned entrepreneur (he must reek of trade!) but he's a useful water mage to have around.  Women, however, and the lower classes, are simply not acceptable even if they're powerful mages.  As earth mages tend not to want to be in the city, the special men's club for mages doesn't have an earth mages -- and they're disinclined to accept Maya.
  11. An episode of Animal Planet.  Maya owns two mongooses, a peacock, a falcon, a monkey, an owl, and a parrot.  They're a bit special, but in ways that still fit their animal natures.
  12. A fairy tale.  Honestly, I'm a nitwit because despite the bright red apple on the cover, and the fact that the last Elemental Master's book I read was a retelling of Sleeping Beauty, I completely missed the obvious:  The Serpent's Shadow is Snow White.  Seven animals = the dwarfs.  Villain = wicked witch.  Snake fang = spinning wheel needle.  There's even an enchanted mirror!  But in many ways, my stupidity is further evidence of Lackey's skill -- she presents all these parallels in a very unDisneyfied way.  I could have missed it entirely and still felt the book was complete on its own.


  1. Hi Magdalen

    This is my favorite of Lackey's Elemental Masters Series, though I have enjoyed all of them. LOL!! I can't believe you didn't recognize the Snow White story!
    Actually, Lackey's Elemental Masters books are about the only Lackey books I like--and I want more of them!
    Congrats on the great analysis.

  2. Barbara -- I most love The Fairy Godmother and the other 500 Kingdom stories, but I enjoy her writing. Someone on Twitter said that her series peter out a bit, so the first couple are better than the next ones. I'll admit that's true of the 500 Kingdom books, but only because the first two are so sublime.

    Great article except for the last bit. Maya met her fate with a hypodermic needle from Shivani who was posing as an apple seller. This represents the poisoned apple not a spinning wheel. The spinning wheel is part of Sleeping Beauty not Snow White. I am not trying to bash, just helping along a fellow Lackey fan.

  4. Anonymous -- You're quite right. My problem is that I'm TOO OLD to remember the details of these fairy tales.



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