published 1988, Ace
The Serpent's Egg is a quasi-Elizabethan drama rendered by Caroline Stevermer with careful attention to detail. It is set at a world-weary court where scheming counts for more than being, and where grief must be postponed for the sake of a dance.
Here courtiers vie for the Queen's attention, and the path of the royal progress is littered with intrigue, as well as many scraps of paper. Stevermer's novel, evidently based on The Letter Game, abounds in letters: frantic little notes smuggled from sleeve to lap, long missives from friends on the warfront, treasonous orders written by the evil duke to his odious compatriots, mournful messages from prisoners. Sonnets and verses, of course, are everywhere, as ubiquitous as scarlet ribbons and point lace. Actual Elizabethan poetry is used at points, which adds verisimilitude.
The novel also uses stock fantasy characters who act as embodiments of attributes such as Love and Fidelity, a hallmark of late medieval and early Renaissance drama. The noble lady, the naive heir, the dastardly duke and the foolhardy solider are all presented as such, though here they are given just enough idiosyncracies to give them personality.
While Stevermer's period detail is well researched and rings true, her main attention is on the plot, which is as convoluted as one might expect, with the villainous duke and his obsessed magician growing stronger at each turn. She stage-manages her characters quite competently and handles the difficulties of dialogue with little effort, showing much promise as a stylist. This novel is both enjoyable and real.
Review by Becky Parkhurst
Reviewed June 16, 1996
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