Review: “In the Forests of Serre,” Patricia McKillip

Pros: A fragrant stew of great magics, an old witch, and missing hearts
Rating: 5 out of 5

Patricia McKillip’s In the Forests of Serre has a folk tale feel to it–magical, mysterious, with grave dangers to be overcome and odd fairy tale rules to obey. I’m never quite sure how to convey the feel of a book by McKillip–there’s a sort of abstract feel to magic that in most authors’ hands would read as arbitrary. In her hands however that abstraction follows near-invisible rules and adds to the absorbing, unusual, magnetic tale.

In the Forests of Serre tells the tale of two kingdoms–Serre and Dacia–and the marriage that will hopefully keep Serre from going to war against Dacia. Dacia’s princess Sidonie is sent to the palace in Serre in the company of servants, guards, and a wizard. The land of Serre has great and terrible magics, and the wizard, Gyre, was sent to keep the princess safe from those magics. Unciel, an old and extremely frail wizard, called in a favor to arrange for Gyre’s presence.

The prince Sidonie is bound to marry–Ronan–still grieves for his dead wife and child. His father forced him into the new marriage, and he escapes by losing himself in the magical lands. He was cursed by the evil witch Brume, and ends up losing his heart somewhere along the way. Sidonie becomes determined to find and return his heart, for she’d rather have a husband who mourns his lost family than one who is cold and distant.

Dark magics abound in this tale. Unciel, the wizard, tries to keep an eye on Gyre and the princess through scrying, but even that nearly kills him. There’s a scribe who works transcribing all the tales Unciel has written down, Euan, who ends up spending at least as much time caring for Unciel as he does being a scribe. In particular he wants Unciel to tell him a certain tale that has not yet been written down–the one that explains why Unciel is in such a tattered state. But the telling of that tale could kill Unciel, and it may well kill Gyre as well.

The characters in this book have depth and fire to them. The feeling of danger in the air is very real–if Sidonie and Ronan don’t marry, Ronan’s ogre of a father, Ferus, will invade Dacia and destroy it. If Unciel can’t tell the king of Dacia that his youngest daughter is safe, the king might risk war against Serre, even though it would destroy him. If Gyre cannot be rescued from the changes that have occurred in his own heart, he could touch off that war–or he could destroy anyone and everyone in his path. The whole thing is a delicate house of cards poised to fall at the wrong touch. In the midst of all of these plots flies the mysterious firebird, a creature of Serre who can ensnare men with her face or her song.

I’m still not sure how to find the right words to explain this book. McKillip’s writing is magical, and her plotting and pacing sing with tension and wonder. Give In the Forests of Serre a chance, and if you love it like I do, pick up every McKillip book you can find. It’ll be well worth it.

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