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.