The Ghost Bride
by Yangsze Choo
384pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 7.5/10
Amazon Rating: 4.1/5
LibraryThing Rating: 3.78/5
Goodreads Rating: 3.73/5

Yangsze Choo’s debut novel, The Ghost Bride, garnered much acclaim after its 2013 release: it was a finalist for several awards including the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature, Shirley Jackson Award for Novel, Goodreads Choice Award for Fantasy, and CILIP Carnegie Medal, plus it was a New York Times bestseller and an Book of the Week. The Ghost Bride is indeed a wonderful novel, especially impressive as a first novel, and it particularly excels at bringing to life both the historical setting of Malaya in 1893 and the Chinese afterlife.

As Pan Li Lan’s eighteenth birthday approaches, her father receives her first marriage offer. The Lim family, one of the most prosperous households in the town of Malacca, would like her to marry their only son, Lim Tian Ching, but there’s a rather large drawback to this arrangement: the proposed bridegroom died a few months ago.

Ghost marriage is a rare occurrence, especially in a case such as this one—Li Lan does not even remember so much as seeing Lim Tian Ching during his short life, though she probably attended the same festivals as he a couple of times—and her father only mentions this option to her because she’d be well provided for if she joined the Lim family. Though once wealthy themselves, the Pan’s fortune has steadily dwindled since Li Lan’s father became a recluse following the death of her mother when Li Lan was just a small child. Despite their financial circumstances, Li Lan is not at all interested in accepting this proposal, yet the Lim family does invite her to their estate where she meets and is drawn to the new family heir, a nephew named Tian Bai.

Shortly after Li Lan begins visiting the Lim family, Lim Tian Ching appears to her in a dream. Unknown to her, he saw Li Lan at a festival before his death and has wanted to marry her ever since—and now he claims he has come to court her. After this, he continues to haunt her dreams insisting that she will marry him, and when she refuses, he states she has no choice in the matter for she was to be his reward from officials in the afterlife. Lim Tian Ching becomes especially incensed after seeing Li Lan with Tian Bai, asserting that his cousin had him murdered.

This persistent intrusion into her dreams leads Li Lan to seek help from a medium, who gives her a powder to take before sleeping. When it fails to keep Lim Tian Ching away, she takes too much and wakes up the next morning as a spirit, watching her own unconscious form while her household puzzles over what could be wrong. Though Li Lan tries, she can’t rejoin her spirit and body and ends up undertaking a journey to the Plains of the Dead on a mission to discover the truth about Lim Tian Ching’s mysterious dealings in the afterlife—and in the process, learns more about both the Lim family and her own.

The Ghost Bride is a fantastic story, and its setting particularly shines, as well as the writing that brings it alive so vividly. Though there is quite a bit of telling and exposition interspersed throughout Li Lan’s first person narrative, it didn’t bother me as much it often does for a couple of reasons: it was interesting and pertinent information about Malacca in the 1890s and the afterlife, especially considering the setting was the highlight of the novel, and it was usually kept fairly brief before continuing the story. The prose is quite evocative of both the living world with its descriptions of buildings, food, and people and the spirit world with its ghosts and demons (and a dragon makes an appearance!).

The pacing could be a little slow at times, but I didn’t find this to be a huge problem. Despite being a slower book, it was suspenseful since there were a lot of mysteries to resolve as Li Lan traversed the town as a spirit and learned more about the world of the dead. Families, politics, and vendettas from life carried over into the afterlife, allowing Li Lan to learn more about her own family’s past and their connection to the Lim family. I quite enjoyed discovering these along with her, and there were plenty of questions to keep one curious about what would happen: Would Li Lan manage to reconnect her spirit and body, and if so, could she ever be free of Lim Tian Ching’s obsession? Was Lim Tian Ching in fact murdered, and if so, was his cousin the one who killed him? And what were these mysterious dealings Lim Tian Ching was involved with after his death, and how did this tie in to his being promised Li Lan as a reward?

Although the setting and story are wonderful, character is not one of The Ghost Bride‘s strengths. None of the characters are particularly complex and seem to have basic qualities that characterize them: for example, Lim Tian Ching is spoiled, believing himself entitled to anything he wants; Li Lan’s amah is superstitious; and Li Lan’s father is scholarly and dismissive of superstition. Other characters tend to be easily placed into categories such as manipulative, kindly, or evil, and the few that do have more traits are the most intriguing characters.

For the most part, the characters do at least seem consistent and believable with the exception of Li Lan herself. Since she hasn’t had much opportunity to live her life until she becomes a spirit, it’s definitely realistic that she’d have a certain amount of naivete. After all, she’s been especially isolated from a young age since her father hasn’t maintained relationships that would allow her to get to know other people outside their household. However, there are times when she goes beyond naive, jumping to conclusions and completely missing what should have been obvious to her in particular—making her appear far less clever than the book and other characters seemed to believe her to be. By the end of the story, she does undergo some development, having changed due to her experiences, but I also would have liked to see a bit more of how her adventures impacted her as a character (although this is a book that seemed to be focused more on world and mysteries than in-depth characterization).

Since character development is my favorite aspect of reading, I ended up being pleasantly surprised by just how much I enjoyed The Ghost Bride. It’s a fascinating meld of history and fantasy with some mysteries, lovely writing, and a nice touch of romance, and I also appreciated that parts of the story didn’t quite go in the direction I’d expected toward the beginning. Although I did want a little more from the characterization and felt that the dialogue was also one of its weaker aspects, I also found it engaging and look forward to Yangsze Choo’s second novel (The Night Tiger).

My Rating: 7.5/10

Where I got my reading copy: I purchased it.

This book is August’s selection from a poll on Patreon.

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature where I talk about books I got over the last week–old or new, bought or received for review consideration (usually unsolicited). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included.

There’s a lot of catching up to do this week since I’ve been away and super busy. I left for a trip to Montreal one weekend, came back the following weekend, and then had an unusually filled week that led to spending much of that weekend working. This post includes all the books that have come in the mail since then, plus one I purchased during my trip, but first here’s what you may have missed since the last one of these features:

And now, all the books!

Jade City by Fonda Lee

Jade City (Green Bone Saga #1) by Fonda Lee

Though Fonda Lee has authored a couple of young adult science fiction novels, including Andre Norton Award finalist and Oregon Spirit Book Award winner Zeroboxer, this upcoming fantasy book is her first adult novel. Orbit Books has an excerpt from Jade City, which will be released on November 7 (hardcover, ebook).



Jade is the lifeblood of the island of Kekon. It has been mined, traded, stolen, and killed for — and for centuries, honorable Green Bone warriors like the Kaul family have used it to enhance their magical abilities and defend the island from foreign invasion.

Now, the war is over and a new generation of Kauls vies for control of Kekon’s bustling capital city. They care about nothing but protecting their own, cornering the jade market, and defending the districts under their protection. Ancient tradition has little place in this rapidly changing nation.

When a powerful new drug emerges that lets anyone—even foreigners—wield jade, the simmering tension between the Kauls and the rival Ayt family erupts into open violence. The outcome of this clan war will determine the fate of all Green Bones—from their grandest patriarch to the lowliest motorcycle runner on the streets—and of Kekon itself.

Jade City begins an epic tale of family, honor, and those who live and die by the ancient laws of jade and blood.

Iraq + 100 edited by Hassan Blasim

Iraq + 100: The First Anthology of Science Fiction to Have Emerged from Iraq edited by Hassan Blasim

This anthology contains ten stories revolving around the theme of imagining what Iraq may look like in the year 2103, all written by Iraqi authors. Iraq + 100 was published in the UK last year, and it will also be available in the US on September 12 (trade paperback, ebook). has an excerpt from Iraq + 100, the introduction written by the editor, award-winning author Hassan Blasim (whose story “The Gardens of Babylon” is included in the anthology), and translated by Jonathan Wright.


Iraq + 100 poses a question to contemporary Iraqi writers: what might your home city look like in the year 2103 – exactly 100 years after the disastrous American and British-led invasion of Iraq? How might that war reach across a century of repair and rebirth, and affect the state of the country – its politics, its religion, its language, its culture – and how might Iraq have finally escaped its chaos, and found its own peace, a hundred years down the line? As well as being an exercise in escaping the politics of the present, this anthology is also an opportunity for a hotbed of contemporary Arabic writers to offer its own spin on science fiction and fantasy.

The Bloodprint by Ausma Zehanat Khan

The Bloodprint (The Khorasan Archives #1) by Ausma Zehanat Khan

The Bloodprint, the first book in a quartet, is mystery writer and former Muslim Girl magazine editor-in-chief Ausma Zehanat Khan’s fantasy literature debut. It will be released on October 3 (trade paperback, ebook, audiobook).


The author of the acclaimed mystery The Unquiet Dead delivers her first fantasy novel—the opening installment in a thrilling quartet—a tale of religion, oppression, and political intrigue that radiates with heroism, wonder, and hope.

A dark power called the Talisman, born of ignorance and persecution, has risen in the land. Led by a man known only as the One-Eyed Preacher, it is a cruel and terrifying movement bent on world domination—a superstitious patriarchy that suppresses knowledge and subjugates women. And it is growing.

But there are those who fight the Talisman’s spread, including the Companions of Hira, a diverse group of influential women whose power derives from the Claim—the magic inherent in the words of a sacred scripture. Foremost among them is Arian and her fellow warrior, Sinnia, skilled fighters who are knowledgeable in the Claim. This daring pair have long stalked Talisman slave-chains, searching for clues and weapons to help them battle their enemy’s oppressive ways. Now they may have discovered a miraculous symbol of hope that can destroy the One-Eyed Preacher and his fervid followers: the Bloodprint, a dangerous text the Talisman has tried to erase from the world.

Finding the Bloodprint promises to be their most perilous undertaking yet, an arduous journey that will lead them deep into Talisman territory. Though they will be helped by allies—a loyal boy they freed from slavery and a man that used to be both Arian’s confidant and sword master—Arian and Sinnia know that this mission may well be their last.

Call of Fire by Beth Cato

Call of Fire (Blood of Earth #2) by Beth Cato

The sequel to Locus, RT Reviewers’ Choice, and Nebula Award–nominated author Beth Cato’s Breath of Earth was just released on August 15 (trade paperback, ebook). Harper Collins has a sample from Call of Fire, plus an excerpt from Breath of Earth.


A resourceful young heroine must protect the world from her enemies—and her own power—in this thrilling sequel to the acclaimed Breath of Earth, an imaginative blend of alternative history, fantasy, science, magic, and adventure.

When an earthquake devastates San Francisco in an alternate 1906, the influx of geomantic energy nearly consumes Ingrid Carmichael. Bruised but alive, the young geomancer flees the city with her friends, Cy, Lee, and Fenris. She is desperate to escape Ambassador Blum, the cunning and dangerous bureaucrat who wants to use Ingrid’s formidable powers to help the Unified Pacific—the confederation of the United States and Japan—achieve world domination. To stop them, Ingrid must learn more about the god-like magic she inherited from her estranged father—the man who set off the quake that obliterated San Francisco.

When Lee and Fenris are kidnapped in Portland, Ingrid and Cy are forced to ally themselves with another ambassador from the Unified Pacific: the powerful and mysterious Theodore Roosevelt. But even TR’s influence may not be enough to save them when they reach Seattle, where the magnificent peak of Mount Rainier looms. Discovering more about herself and her abilities, Ingrid is all too aware that she may prove to be the fuse to light the long-dormant volcano . . . and a war that will sweep the world.

Reincarnation Blues by Michael Poore

Reincarnation Blues by Michael Poore

Up Jumps the Devil author Michael Poore’s second novel was just released last week (hardcover, ebook, audiobook). Penguin Random House has an excerpt from Reincarnation Blues.


A wildly imaginative novel about a man who is reincarnated over ten thousand lifetimes to be with his one true love: Death herself.

First we live. Then we die. And then . . . we get another try?

Ten thousand tries, to be exact. Ten thousand lives to “get it right.” Answer all the Big Questions. Achieve Wisdom. And Become One with Everything.

Milo has had 9,995 chances so far and has just five more lives to earn a place in the cosmic soul. If he doesn’t make the cut, oblivion awaits. But all Milo really wants is to fall forever into the arms of Death. Or Suzie, as he calls her.

More than just Milo’s lover throughout his countless layovers in the Afterlife, Suzie is literally his reason for living—as he dives into one new existence after another, praying for the day he’ll never have to leave her side again.

But Reincarnation Blues is more than a great love story: Every journey from cradle to grave offers Milo more pieces of the great cosmic puzzle—if only he can piece them together in time to finally understand what it means to be part of something bigger than infinity. As darkly enchanting as the works of Neil Gaiman and as wisely hilarious as Kurt Vonnegut’s, Michael Poore’s Reincarnation Blues is the story of everything that makes life profound, beautiful, absurd, and heartbreaking.

Because it’s more than Milo and Suzie’s story. It’s your story, too.

A Lot Like Christmas: Stories by Connie Willis

A Lot Like Christmas: Stories by Connie Willis

Nebula and Hugo Award–winning author Connie Willis’ upcoming short story collection is an updated edition of Miracle and Other Christmas Stories featuring five brand new stories (plus seven more!), an introduction by the author, an afterword, and the author’s favorite Christmas movies, stories, TV episodes, and poems. A Lot Like Christmas will be released on October 10 (trade paperback, ebook).


This new, expanded edition of Miracle and Other Christmas Stories features twelve brilliantly reimagined holiday tales, five of which are collected here for the first time.

Christmas comes but once a year, yet the stories in this dazzling collection are fun to read anytime. They put a speculative spin on the holiday, giving fans of acclaimed author Connie Willis a welcome gift and a dozen reasons to be of good cheer.

Brimming with Willis’s trademark insights and imagination, these heartwarming tales are full of humor, absurdity, human foibles, tragedy, joy, and hope. They both embrace and send up many of the best Christmas traditions, including the holiday newsletter, Secret Santas, office parties, holiday pageants, and Christmas dinners (both elaborate and spare). There are Rockettes, the best and worst Christmas movies, modern-day Magi, Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Yet to Come—and the triumph of generosity over greed. Like all the timeless classics we return to year after year, these stories affirm our faith in love, magic, and the wonder of the season.

The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay

The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay

This was my one book purchase made while in Montreal. I visited a few bookstores while there and especially had fun browsing the huge fantasy and science fiction sections at Indigo. They had so much that it was hard for me to refrain from buying a lot so I decided to just buy an edition of a book I couldn’t find in the US. The Canadian edition of The Lions of Al-Rassan seemed fitting, especially since the book I purchased last time I was in Montreal was The Fionavar Tapestry omnibus.


Hauntingly evocative of medieval Spain, The Lions of Al-Rassan, a bestselling classic of Canadian literature, is the exhilarating story of love, divided loyalties, and what happens to men and women when passionate beliefs conspire to remake—or destroy—a world.

Home to three very different cultures, Al-Rassan is a land of seductive beauty and violent history where peace among the people is a precarious thing. Despite their differences, three extraordinary individuals of different faiths are drawn together by a series of unforeseen events. Jehane bet Ishak is a brilliant physician who by saving the life of prominent merchant puts her life in peril. Rodrigo Belmonte is a powerful, charismatic military leader who finds himself exiled by his own king. Ammar ibn Khairan is a renowned poet, courtier, and deadly whose life is changed by a brutal massacre orchestrated by his king. These three find their lives interwoven as fate leads Al-Rassan to the brink of war.

Additional Books:

Brightest Fell Blog Tour Banner

Today I’m thrilled to be part of the blog tour for the upcoming eleventh novel in a series I love for its characters and sense of humor—the New York Times bestselling, Hugo Award–nominated October Daye series! The Brightest Fell will be released in hardcover and ebook on September 5, and I have an excerpt from its beginning to share. I’m also hosting a giveaway of a copy of Rosemary and Rue, the first book in the series and Campbell, Hugo, and Nebula Award–winning author Seanan McGuire’s debut novel. Those from the US and Canada are eligible to win; more details on the book and giveaway are at the end after The Brightest Fell details and excerpt.

About THE BRIGHTEST FELL (October Daye #11 | DAW Hardcover):

Contains an original bonus novella, Of Things Unknown!

Things are slow, and October “Toby” Daye couldn’t be happier about that.  The elf-shot cure has been approved, Arden Windermere is settling into her position as Queen in the Mists, and Toby doesn’t have anything demanding her attention except for wedding planning and spending time with her family.

Maybe she should have realized that it was too good to last.

When Toby’s mother, Amandine, appears on her doorstep with a demand for help, refusing her seems like the right thing to do…until Amandine starts taking hostages, and everything changes.  Now Toby doesn’t have a choice about whether or not she does as her mother asks.  Not with Jazz and Tybalt’s lives hanging in the balance.  But who could possibly help her find a pureblood she’s never met, one who’s been missing for over a hundred years?

Enter Simon Torquill, elf-shot enemy turned awakened, uneasy ally.  Together, the two of them must try to solve one of the greatest mysteries in the Mists: what happened to Amandine’s oldest daughter, August, who disappeared in 1906.

This is one missing person case Toby can’t afford to get wrong.


October 9th, 2013

Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell. — William Shakespeare, Macbeth.


THE FETCH IS ONE of the most feared and least understood figures in Faerie. Their appearance heralds the approach of inescapable death: once the Fetch shows up, there’s nothing that can be done. The mechanism that summons them has never been found, and they’ve always been rare, with only five conclusively identified in the last century. They appear for the supposedly significant—kings and queens, heroes and villains—and they wear the faces of the people they have come to escort into whatever awaits the fae beyond the borders of death. They are temporary, transitory, and terrifying.

My Fetch, who voluntarily goes by “May Daye,” because nothing says “I am a serious and terrible death omen” like having a pun for a name, showed up more than three years ago. She was supposed to foretell my impending doom. Instead, all she managed to foretell was me getting a new roommate. Life can be funny that way.

At the moment, doom might have been a nice change. May was standing on the stage of The Mint, San Francisco’s finest karaoke bar, enthusiastically bellowing her way through an off-key rendition of Melissa Etheridge’s “Come to My Window.” Her live-in girlfriend, Jazz, was sitting at one of the tables closest to the stage, chin propped in her hands, gazing at May with love and adoration all out of proportion to the quality of my Fetch’s singing.

May has the face I wore when she appeared. We don’t look much alike anymore, but when she first showed up at my apartment door to tell me I was going to die, we were identical. She has my memories up to the point of her creation: years upon years of parental issues, crushing insecurity, abandonment, and criminal activities. And right now, none of that mattered half as much as the fact that she also had my absolute inability to carry a tune.

“Why are we having my bachelorette party at a karaoke bar again?” I asked, speaking around the mouth of the beer bottle I was trying to keep constantly against my lips. If I was drinking, I wasn’t singing. If I wasn’t singing, all these people might still be my friends in the morning.

Of course, with as much as most of them had already had to drink, they probably wouldn’t notice if I did sing. Or if I decided to sneak out of the bar, go home, change into my sweatpants, and watch old movies on the couch until I passed out. Which would have been my preference for how my bachelorette party was going to go, if I absolutely had to have one. I didn’t think they were required. May had disagreed with me. Vehemently. And okay, that had sort of been expected.

What I hadn’t expected was for most of my traitorous, backstabbing friends to take her side. Stacy—one of my closest friends since childhood—had actually laughed in my face when I demanded to know why she was doing this to me.

“Being your friend is like trying to get up close and personal with a natural disaster,” she’d said. “Sure, we have some good times, but we spend half of them covered in blood. We just want to spend an evening making you as uncomfortable as you keep making the rest of us.”

Not to be outdone, her eldest daughter, Cassandra, had blithely added, “Besides, we don’t think even you can turn a karaoke party into a bloodbath.”

All of my friends are evil.

As my Fetch and hence the closest thing I had to a sister, May had declared herself to be in charge of the whole affair. That was how we’d wound up reserving most of the tables at The Mint for an all-night celebration of the fact that I was getting married. Even though we didn’t have a date, a plan, or a seating chart, we were having a bachelorette party. Lucky, lucky me.

My name is October Daye. I am a changeling; I am a knight; I am a hero of the realm; and if I never have to hear Stacy sing Journey songs again, it will be too soon.

About the Author
Seanan McGuire lives and works in Washington State, where she shares her somewhat idiosyncratic home with her collection of books, creepy dolls, and enormous blue cats. When not writing—which is fairly rare—she enjoys travel, and can regularly be found any place where there are cornfields, haunted houses, or frogs. A Campbell, Hugo, and Nebula Award-winning author, Seanan’s first book (Rosemary and Rue, the beginning of the October Daye series) was released in 2009, with more than twenty books across various series following since. Seanan doesn’t sleep much.

You can visit her at

Rosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire About ROSEMARY AND RUE:

The world of Faerie never disappeared; it merely went into hiding, continuing to exist parallel to our own. Secrecy is the key to Faerie’s survival—but no secret can be kept forever, and when the fae and mortal worlds collide, changelings are born.

Outsiders from birth, these half-human, half-fae children spend their lives fighting for the respect of their immortal relations. Or, in the case of October “Toby” Daye, rejecting it completely. After getting burned by both sides of her heritage, Toby has denied the fae world, retreating into a “normal” life. Unfortunately for her, Faerie has other ideas…

The murder of Countess Evening Winterrose, one of the secret regents of the San Francisco Bay Area, pulls Toby back into the fae world. Unable to resist Evening’s dying curse, Toby must resume her former position as knight errant to the Duke of Shadowed Hills and begin renewing old alliances that may prove her only hope of solving the mystery…before the curse catches up with her.

Courtesy of DAW, I have one copy of Rosemary and Rue to give away! This giveaway is open to residents of the US and Canada.

Giveaway Rules: To be entered in the giveaway, fill out the form below OR send an email to kristen AT fantasybookcafe DOT com with the subject “October Daye Giveaway.” One entry per household and one winner will be randomly selected. Those from the US or Canada are eligible to win this giveaway. The giveaway will be open until the end of the day on Thursday, August 31. The winner has 24 hours to respond once contacted via email, and if I don’t hear from them by then a new winner will be chosen (who will also have 24 hours to respond until someone gets back to me with a place to send the book).

Please note email addresses will only be used for the purpose of contacting the winner. Once the giveaway is over all the emails will be deleted.

Update: The form has been removed since the giveaway is now over.

Since the beginning of 2016, I have been reading and reviewing one book a month based on the results of a poll on PatreonAll of these monthly reviews can be viewed here.

This will be the last monthly book review based on a Patreon poll. When I started the Patreon account last year, I knew I was doing something a bit different by offering editing services, but since that hasn’t drawn much attention, I’ve shut it down and replaced it with Ko-fi (though I will have more to say in the near future about editing services!). If you find the work I do here interesting and want to buy me a coffee, I would appreciate it.

For the final monthly poll, I decided to forego any sort of theme and just select a few books from my shelves that sounded especially appealing at the moment. This month’s book selections were as follows:

The August book is…

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo
The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo

Yangsze Choo’s stunning debut, The Ghost Bride, is a startlingly original novel infused with Chinese folklore, romantic intrigue, and unexpected supernatural twists.

Li Lan, the daughter of a respectable Chinese family in colonial Malaysia, hopes for a favorable marriage, but her father has lost his fortune, and she has few suitors. Instead, the wealthy Lim family urges her to become a “ghost bride” for their son, who has recently died under mysterious circumstances. Rarely practiced, a traditional ghost marriage is used to placate a restless spirit. Such a union would guarantee Li Lan a home for the rest of her days, but at what price?

Night after night, Li Lan is drawn into the shadowy parallel world of the Chinese afterlife, where she must uncover the Lim family’s darkest secrets—and the truth about her own family.

Reminiscent of Lisa See’s Peony in Love and Amy Tan’s The Bonesetter’s DaughterThe Ghost Bride is a wondrous coming-of-age story and from a remarkable new voice in fiction.

I’m really excited to read this one—I’ve heard it’s wonderful, and I also found it interesting to learn more about how Yangsze Choo found inspiration for The Ghost Bride and her upcoming second novel, The Night Tiger, in old buildings.


World Fantasy Award–winning author Patricia A. McKillip’s standalone novel In the Forests of Serre, first published in 2003, is among her many works that have been nominated for the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award. Though it’s not quite on par with my favorites of her books (The Changeling Sea and The Forgotten Beasts of Eld), it’s a beautifully written fairy tale that I enjoyed immensely.

While riding through the forests of Serre on his way home from battle, Prince Ronan unexpectedly comes across a woman and her chickens, though he doesn’t notice the white hen in his path until he hears its screech as it’s trampled by his horse. Unfortunately for Ronan, the woman feeding her birds is the witch Brume, and the hen that met its demise beneath his horse’s hooves was her particular favorite.

When Ronan asks how to repay Brume, she says he can come into her house, pluck the dead hen, and drink a cup of broth made from it around her fire with his men. In the tales Ronan has heard of Brume, he’s heard that one should never ever enter her house made of bones, and he refuses to do as she asks. After his third refusal, the witch informs Ronan that he is about to have a very bad day and that after he leaves his father’s palace later that day, he will not be able to find his way back to it—until after he finds Brume once again.

Ronan does return home to receive some very bad news: he is to wed Sidonie, a princess of Dacia, in four days. Still in mourning from the recent loss of his wife and child, Ronan is not ready to marry again, but his father is adamant that he will obey. Soon after he learns the king’s plan for his future, Ronan views a beautiful bird-woman made of fire from his window and is drawn to follow her into the forests of Serre, leaving Sidonie without a groom after she’s spent most of her summer traveling to Serre to marry the prince. If the prince cannot break the enchantment and return to the palace, his cruel father isn’t going to simply return the princess to Dacia—and that may start the war between the two countries that Ronan and Sidonie’s marriage was supposed to prevent…

In the Forests of Serre is the sixth book I’ve read by Patricia A. McKillip (and the fourth novel since two of the others I’ve read are short story collections). Though it’s not my favorite of her works, it’s quite recognizably a Patricia A. McKillip book due to the beautiful writing, fairy tale quality, quiet subversion of tropes, and slight moments of charm and humor. I rather enjoyed it, but I am finding that I seem to prefer her novels when they focus on one main character instead of several. In the Forests of Serre follows four main characters, and as a fairly short book, that’s not enough time to add immense depth to any of them, despite the fact that I wouldn’t call any of them flat characters.

Of the four main characters, my favorite is Sidonie. As I noted when discussing “The Gorgon in the Cupboard” in my review of Dreams of Distant Shores, I particularly appreciate Patricia A. McKillip’s female characters, and Sidonie is no exception. Toward the beginning, especially when viewed through the eyes of others, she may seem like a stereotypical princess archetype: beautiful, kind, brave, dutiful to her father and the needs of her country even though she does not want to go to Serre to marry a complete stranger who’s still in love with his dead wife. However, she is one of the more clever, resourceful characters in the novel, and even without having any magical ability of her own, she is more successful at looking out for herself within the forests of Serre than many. One of the best parts of the novel is the subversion of the damsel in distress trope when Sidonie has a bad situation completely under control—at least, she would have had it under control if someone hadn’t completely botched up her plan with his attempt to rescue her.

In addition to Sidonie and Ronan, the novel follows two characters connected to the once-powerful wizard Unciel, the scribe Euan and the wizard Gyre. Euan assists Unciel by writing down the tales of his past adventures, although the wizard refuses to share the story of his last, the one resulting in his current frailness. It’s through these chapters that we get to see what’s happening in Dacia, and they also provide further insight into what’s happening to Gyre, the wizard the king hires to shield Sidonie from the strange magic of Serre at Unciel’s recommendation. Though Gyre brings Sidonie safely to the palace in Serre, he has a great desire for power and can’t protect himself from the lure of the country’s magic, causing further problems for Sidonie and Ronan.

The writing is poetic with vivid imagery, such as when Sidonie saw the firebird for the first time:


She saw nothing else, heard nothing, as it flew silently through the twilight, its wings trailing plumes and ribbons of flame, its tail covered with jewels of fire. Its claws and beak and eyes seemed of hammered gold that melted into fire and then hardened again into gold. It sang a note. She felt the sound fall through her heart like a pearl falling slowly, with infinite beauty, through liquid gold.
—pp. 56–57

In the Forests of Serre is a gorgeously written, enchanting story with kingdoms, mages, a witch, talking animals, and frequent use of the rule of three—and like many fairy tales, it’s both literally and figuratively about the human heart. Although I enjoyed reading about all the characters, especially Sidonie, I wasn’t quite as invested in them as in other books I’ve read by Patricia A. McKillip, but it’s still a gem I can easily imagine rereading in the future.

My Rating: 8/10

Where I got my reading copy: I purchased it.

This book is July’s selection from a poll on Patreon.

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature where I talk about books I got over the last week–old or new, bought or received for review consideration (usually unsolicited). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included.

Last week brought some books by a couple of excellent authors, but before getting to the latest books, here are last week’s reviews in case you missed either of them:

Now, the latest books…

The Overneath by Peter S. Beagle

The Overneath by Peter S. Beagle

This short story collection from Hugo, Nebula, Mythopoeic, and World Fantasy Award–winning author Peter S. Beagle will be released on November 7 (trade paperback). Each story has a brief introduction by the author, and the book includes two stories about Schmendrick from The Last Unicorn, including one that has not been published before titled “Schmendrick Alone,” and a story set in the same world as The Innkeeper’s SongThe complete table of contents from The Overneath can be viewed on the publisher’s website.


An odd couple patrols a county full of mythological beasts and ornery locals. A familiar youngster from the world of The Last Unicorn is gifted in magic but terrible at spell-casting. A seemingly incorruptible judge meets his match in a mysterious thief who steals his heart. Two old friends discover that the Overneath goes anywhere, including locations better left unvisited.

Lyrical, witty, and insightful, The Overneath is Peter S. Beagle’s much-anticipated return to the short form. In these uniquely beautiful and wholly original tales, with new and uncollected work, Beagle once again proves himself a master of the imagination.

Ursula K. Le Guin: The Hainish Novels and Stories

Ursula K. Le Guin: The Hainish Novels and Stories by Ursula K. Le Guin; edited by Brian Attebery

This two-volume, hardcover boxed set contains award-winning author Ursula K. Le Guin’s novels and short stories set in the Hainish universe, which include her Hugo and Nebula Award–winning novels The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed. This complete collection contains nearly 2,000 pages, and each volume has an introduction by the author.

Ursula K. Le Guin: The Hainish Novels and Stories will be released on September 5.


For the first time, a deluxe collector’s edition of the pathbreaking novels and stories that reinvented science fiction, with new introductions by the author.

In such visionary masterworks as the Nebula and Hugo Award winners The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin redrew the map of modern science fiction, imagining a galactic confederation of human colonies founded by the planet Hain, an array of worlds whose divergent societies—the result of both evolution and genetic engineering—allow her to speculate on what is intrinsic in human nature. Now, for the first time, the complete Hainish novels and stories are collected in a deluxe two-volume Library of America boxed set, with new introductions by the author.

Voiume one gathers the first five Hainish novels: Rocannon’s World, in which an ethnologist sent to a bronze-age planet must help defeat an intergalactic enemy; Planet of Exile, the story of human colonists stranded on a planet that is slowly killing them; City of Illusions, which finds a future Earth ruled by the mysterious Shing; and the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning masterpieces The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed—as well as four short stories.

Volume two presents Le Guin’s final two Hainish novels, The Word for World Is Forest, in which Earth enslaves another planet to strip its natural resources, and The Telling, the harrowing story of a society which has suppressed its own cultural heritage. Rounding out the volume are seven short stories and the story suite Five Ways to Forgiveness, published here in full for the first time.

The endpapers feature Le Guin’s own hand-drawn map of Gethen, the planet that is the setting for The Left Hand of Darkness, and a full-color chart of the known worlds of Hainish descent.

Additional Book(s):