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Saturday, January 07, 2006

cover of In the Forests of Serre

Patricia McKillip's books are magical and wondrous, and among her many fine works, this one stands out. It is a fairy tale, but one written for and about complex, adult characters with both troubles and joy. How many fairy tales do you know of where the prince is a widower, driven nearly mad by the loss of his wife and newborn child? The story is spun into motion by Brume, the oldest and most feared witch in Serre, who lives in her house made of bones, and along with the mysterious and beautiful firebird, she is at the heart of the magic in Serre which propels the story and makes healing possible.

Where do you hide your heart? What does it look like, and what is it worth to you? This book repeatedly brings up the idea of the heart, in many different ways. Prince Ronan, when he is bargaining with Brume for his life, decides to give her his heart in payment-- he is so wounded by his grief that he thinks he would rather live without it. When Princess Sidonie learns this, she secretly steals away to deal with the fearsome Brume-- because, she says, while Ronan may be able to live without his heart, she cannot. These issues of the heart also touch on the wizard Gyre, who escorted and protected Sidonie on her trip from Dacia into Serre-- because years ago he had found and stolen the heart of a fearsome monster. And of course, there is the beautiful firebird, whose song and lovely form ensorcel people so, because they look and sound like the desires of your heart.

Part of the story is told through the experiences of the scribe Euan, in Sidonie's home kingdom of Dacia. Euan is hired by the wizard Unciel, who is recovering from a difficult battle which nearly destroyed him, and which, for a time, he refuses to talk about. This is, of course, the monster whose heart Gyre stole-- Unciel defeated the monster only by becoming the monster, which nearly destroyed him; the magic of Serre eventually allows a possibility for Unciel to heal from this ordeal of self-destruction. Euan is an interesting character, and the first time I read the book I wondered why McKillip wasted time on him; he is not merely a scribe, but also a dreamer and a lover of language and story, and I see now that his presence in the book allows McKillip to write more about the power of words and tales. And this is more important, because of the kind of land that Serre is.

You never know, in Serre, when and where a tale will become true.

This is a book worth reading and re-reading, worth thinking and dreaming about. It is beautiful and mesmerizing and powerful-- especially the strange connection between the heartbreakingly beautiful firebird and the hideous and terrible Brume, something which is all the more mysterious and magical because it is never fully articulated.

Title:In the Forests of Serre
Author:Patricia McKillip
Date published:2003
Number of pages:295
Notes:Second reading. Christmas present from Sapphire.


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