What are you reading? (was:Re: Remake, and a plug for Issola and Sabriel)

Melissa Proffitt Melissa at Proffitt.com
Thu Jul 26 14:13:19 EDT 2001

On Fri, 27 Jul 2001 00:08:39 +1000, Gross Family wrote:

>Melissa writes:
>> I was reading _Serpent's Shadow_ until I got fed up and tossed it across
>> room.
>Oh no! Did you dislike it that much? I was looking forward to reading it.

If you generally like Mercedes Lackey, I see no reason why you should not
like this one.  I stopped reading her books years ago, but I gave this one a
chance on the recommendation of a friend (who also doesn't usually like her
books).  It sounded like an interesting idea--magic based on English
tradition and magic based on Indian tradition, set in Victorian London.
Lackey does use the old idea of the four elements as a basis for magic, but
she seems to have given it some original thought.  Those were the good

Here are the things I object to:

1.  The heroine is beautiful in a nontraditional way that no one but the
hero is perceptive enough to realize, intelligent, highly educated, and
generally perfect.  She's also an outcast because she's a woman and
half-Indian.  We're meant to growl at the injustice of it all.

2.  Just in case you didn't realize how injust it all was, the heroine is
also a skilled physician who is a century ahead of her time in the way she
treats her patients, as opposed to those awful hacks who don't even know
enough to wash their hands.  Lackey casts this in the appropriate knowledge
of that time period (references to the "new" germ theory and Lister's
carbolic spray) but somehow the heroine is the only one enlightened enough
to use these procedures.  

3.  Just in case you STILL don't get it, the mage council of London refuses
to admit her because she's a GUURRRRL and they're icky, plus girls are too
weak-willed to learn real magic, plus it's a rich old-boys network.  All
this despite her being far stronger in magic than any of them even though
she's untrained, and despite their not having (and desperately needing) an
Earth mage (which is what she is).

4.  For some reason, the hero is a member of the council despite being
neither rich nor possessed of the old school tie.  This makes it possible
for him to be the hero, because the rich men are all bigoted and stupid, and
the poor men, while noble-spirited and generous of heart, are still not of
the same class as our heroine.

5.  The heroine has "servants" who are supposedly more like friends, but
they still serve her and they still act as though she is their mistress.
She'll eat dinner with them, but heaven forbid she wash an actual plate.

6.  Indian lifestyle Good.  English lifestyle Bad.  (Except for the rigid
class structure of both, which is Bad.)

7.  The heroine has a female sidekick who is studying to be a doctor and who
is active in the suffrage movement, but she's still not our heroine's equal.
Nobody is, except maybe the hero.  That would ruin the story.

8.  Intelligent wild animals who are "tame" but aren't really pets.  This is
a personal dislike, and not necessarily a flaw, but I think it's a cliche.

9.  The bulk of the book, up until page 90, is spent convincing us of the
injustice of the society and the Goodness and Enlightened Intelligence of
our heroine.  At this point, the entire backstory is dumped in our laps over
the course of three pages, so now we know exactly what our heroine is up
against.  Except that she's also going to have to fight the intolerance of
non-magical London society and the exclusivity of the London mages.  This is
where I gave up.

Lackey based her story on a historical period, and the facts are mostly
accurate.  But what's she's written is a cariacature of how that society
really functioned, the flaws exaggerated into a black-and-white depiction of
Good and Evil that never existed anywhere.  Readers can sit back and happily
identify with the Good heroine, hissing at the Evil people who are opposed
to her.  It is self-indulgence disguised as consciousness-raising, unless
you believe there are actually people out there who will read this book and
stop being hypocritical, judgmental chauvinists because of it.

I'm not a fan, as I said, but I've read enough of her books to know that
this is essentially the same kind of story Mercedes Lackey always tells.
Society in general is intolerant and stupid; the heroes are enlightened in a
way that demonstrates how illogical society's intolerance is.  It is the
same kind of preaching that I object to from Sheri Tepper, though I think
Tepper is the better writer of the two.  But what really steams me is that,
because Lackey's characters have a non-traditional, non-Judeo-Christian
morality, they're supposed to be all enlightened and generous of spirit.
But they're really very intolerant of anyone who doesn't share their
morality.  In _The Serpent's Shadow_, the heroine mentions the Christian
organizations who are doing the same sort of charitable work among the poor
that she is doing, but dismisses them because they're trying to force the
poor people to convert to Christianity and stop selling their bodies on the
street ('making them give up their income without giving them an alternate
source of money' is roughly how the heroine puts it).  Period.  No effort to
give them credit for charity; no encounters with such people to try to
understand what motivates them.  The heroine is Right and they are Wrong.

Ultimately, I disliked this book because I am not interested in reading
something that's so black-and-white in its portrayal of goodness and
morality.  It's as bad as reading a religious tract (though admittedly
better written).  I would rather read something in which both the
protagonists and antagonists have a mix of good and bad qualities.  I would
rather read about true tolerance and compassion.  I would rather read about
people who overcome their initial impressions to realize that not everything
is as absolute as they thought.  In short, I would rather read _Deep
Secret_.  Or _Archer's Goon_.  Or _The Perilous Gard_. (Or, if we're
comparing apples to apples, Laurie King's books about Mary Russell, set only
a few years after the time period of _The Serpent's Shadow_.)

This is probably a lot harsher than any of you expected.  My apologies to
anyone on this list who *does* like Mercedes Lackey; despite my opinion of
her books, I still have the highest regard for all of you.

Melissa Proffitt
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