In the Forests of Serre

Patricia A. McKillip’s Ombria in Shadow was recommended to me a couple of years ago by a friend.  It had a lovely dreamy quality, and was concerned far more with mood and ambience than sharp dialogue and exciting plot (though it had both of these).  It was striking how different it was from what I was reading and from the mainstream fantasy mode.  I liked it so much that I wrote a wikipedia page for it (which still remains, though it is now [appropriately given the collaborative nature of wikipedia] quite different).

I subsequently bought The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (a Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks edition), The Sorceress and the Cygnet, and The Cygnet and the Firebird.  All of them had the same approach to plot progression and characterisation that owes more to myth and folklore than modern, and causally transparent, modes of storytelling.  I’ve since seen echoes of this style in others’ work, in particular The Malacia Tapestry by Brian Aldiss and, well, everything I’ve read by Gene Wolfe.

I was dragged right back into this world of folklore and proto-fairytale when I picked up In the Forests of Serre.  There are wise wizards and wicked witches and things that come in threes, but there are also all sorts of subversions of the standard tropes and characters, and some other things that go deep, tapping directly into a realm of myth and archetype.

The violent king of Serre attempts to marry his son, Ronan, to Sidonie, the princess of a neighbouring smaller kingdom.  Ronan, however, has just lost his wife and child and will have none of it.  He flees to the forest and encounters the siren Firebird, which he is driven to follow mindlessly through the trees like a flame-bound moth.  Sidonie, unaware of this, travels to Serre with a young and untested wizard protector, Gyre.

Gyre becomes enamoured with the power that inheres to Serre and through treachery seeks to replace Ronan.  This, alongside the problems that come from seeking to make deals with cruel witches, leads to all sorts of trouble for Ronan and Sidonie.  The characters wander past each other in the dark dense forest, encountering witch and Firebird by turns in a web of danger and confusion.

The main sources of conflict are: that Sidonie does not really want to marry Ronan; that Ronan has not recovered from the death of his family; and that Gyre has been corrupted by Serre’s magic.  Eventually these problems are all wrapped up in a lovely sequence of events that truly deserve the term magical.  McKillip does not rely on feats of derring do or sorcerous potency to resolve her novels; instead, characters gain insight and fundamental and mysterious truths exert themselves.  The conclusion is mystical and dreamlike, but above all, (as should always be the case with a good fairytale) satisfying.

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