The Serpent Mage

by Greg Bear

Cover image

Series: Earth and Power #2
Publisher: Berkley
Copyright: November 1986
ISBN: 0-425-09337-9
Format: Mass market
Pages: 343

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The Serpent Mage is essentially the second half of The Infinity Concerto. The two together are a single long novel and are now often published as an omnibus. Don't read this one before reading the previous book.

After not liking The Infinity Concerto, I considered skipping this book, but the feedback I got on my review said the second book was much better and improved the first book in retrospect. The style is certainly much different from either the coming of age training story at the start of The Infinity Concerto or the traveling and problem-solving at the end of the book. Michael starts The Serpent Mage having returned to his home of Los Angeles, attempting to come to terms with his adventure, its impact on his life, his changed relationship with his parents, and his obligations to Waltiri's estate. Everything seems to have returned to normal. But it hasn't: the Realm is collapsing, its inhabitants are coming to Earth, and included in Waltiri's possessions are remaining surprises.

The plot is certainly improved. The Serpent Mage features complicated shifting alliances, some huge ideas about the nature of Earth and reality, lots of hard and unclear choices, and quite a bit more of the interesting metaphysical background that previously only showed in bursts. There still was not enough detail about the history of Earth and the Sidhe's encounters in space for me — apparently the hints we received are all there is — but Bear adds more to the theory of magic and eventually the theory of world creation in ways that add a hint of space opera to traditional fantasy magic. I wish it had gone farther, but what there is makes for a compelling world idea.

Characterization, however, remains a problem. This time, I think the root of that problem is Michael's distance and detachment from everything that's happening. The book follows Michael's viewpoint almost exclusively, and Michael feels like he's interacting with the world through an emotional telescope. This is not unjustified; indeed, it's well-defended in narrator musings and Michael's relationship with women and with his parents, grounded in the shock of changing realities to the Realm and back again. Realistic or not, though, the reader gets the same emotional distance, which made it hard for me to truly care about the rest of the cast. Michael's mother's secret seemed pedestrian when it was finally revealed. Kristine had her moments, but the tentative emotional connection was then destroyed by her sidelining for much of the book. Shiafa starts as an interesting cipher, but then falls into emotions dictated by the author and poorly reflected in the text. It's hard to muster more than a vague intellectual appreciation for how the characters fit together.

This same distancing infects most description in the book, and it's in the world background and events that I think it's the most damaging. The Infinity Concerto at times felt like it was trying too hard, but it did provide some glimmers of the fierceness and wildness of the Sidhe and their Realm, particularly towards the end of the book. I was hoping to see that developed here, but The Serpent Mage manages little more than similar glimmers. There's an emotion-sapping deluge of telling rather than showing going on here. Michael analyzes everything, as does the narrator, and the reader is constantly being told what he's thinking, why he's thinking it, or how it's affecting him, rather than reading about amazing sights and having the emotions conveyed through impressiveness of description. Bear's descriptions lack the emotional connection and engrossing magic that makes fantasy so vivid, the sort of description that Susan Cooper does so well in her Dark Is Rising sequence. A wholesale invasion of the Sidhe into modern Earth somehow comes across as an annoying obstacle and expected side effect that Michael has to work around, rather than something that made me stop reading (or read more quickly) in awe.

In short, this book plods. This is doubly disappointing since the underlying material is complex and worth reading about. There are moments that shine, such as Michael's conversation with the long-awaited Serpent Mage, Bear's ingenious twisting of mythology and religion, and the battles of world creation and conception. At times, I caught glimmers of psychological depth to the story that were fun to ponder. And Michael, after being a stock hero for much of The Infinity Concerto, is quite untraditional here, avoiding the stereotype of either the eager or the reluctant hero and constantly struggling with his own motives. But despite the intellectual appeal, The Serpent Mage never grabbed me. It was easy to put down, I rarely cared about picking it up again, and I never developed an emotional attachment to the story.

Rating: 5 out of 10

Reviewed: 2007-09-30

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21