This week I’m recommending something by American author, Patricia A.McKillip. Over a long career, McKillip has produced many brilliant Fantasy novels, so it was hard to decide which one to write about. From among my favourites I’ve picked `In the Forests of Serre’ because, like last week’s choice (`The Brides of Rollrock Island’),  it is a non-Urban Fantasy which features a fascinating witch. This novel was first published in 2003 and is available in paperback or on Nook. McKillip is unusual among modern Fantasy authors  in mainly writing stand-alone novels. `In the Forests of Serre’ is one of these.

The story begins deep in the magical forests of the kingdom of Serre when Prince Ronan accidentally kills a white hen belonging to Brume, `the Mother of All Witches’. She warns him that he is going to have a very bad day and that the next time he leaves his father’s palace he won’t find his way home again unless he finds her first. Ronan feels that since the death of his wife and child, all days are bad. Back at the palace, Ronan is told by his brutal father, King Ferus of Serre, that he must marry again and that his chosen bride, Princess Sidonie of Dacia, will arrive soon. When the grieving prince glimpses an enchantingly beautiful firebird in the forest beyond the palace, he runs away to follow it.

Princess Sidonie was equally horrified when she first learned that she had to marry a prince she’s never met in order to save her country from being invaded by King Ferus. She appeals to the court wizard, Unciel, for help but he is dangerously weak after a magical combat that he will not talk about, even to Euan the young scribe who is writing his life story. Unciel asks a wizard and shape-shifter called Gyre, whom he once rescued from a horrible fate, to protect Sidonie during her dangerous journey into Serre. In the forest, Sidonie encounters a ragged madman who is following the song of the firebird. She treats him kindly and later realizes that this was her husband to be. King Ferus is determined that Sidonie shall marry his son because he covets the magic that is supposed to run in her royal line. Sidonie is imprisoned in the palace while Gyre is sent to join the search for the missing bridegroom.

Meanwhile back in Dacia, everyone is concerned that there has been no news about the princess. The old wizard risks his life trying to find out what is happening to her. As Euan learns more about Unciel’s relationship with Gyre, he fears that the princess has been sent into terrible danger. In Serre, Ronan gives up something that is more precious than he knows, Gyre’s clever plans go badly wrong and Sidonie endures a disastrous wedding day and then bravely sets out on a rescue mission. Amid treachery and temptation, all three of them must make a risky bargain with the Mother of All Witches and face the nameless apparition that is haunting the Forests of Serre.

McKillip’s fantasies are more intimate than epic. As in this novel, she generally concentrates on a small group of well-drawn characters whose fates intertwine at a time of crisis. She is also adept at creating exciting plots without the massive battles between good and evil which are the mainstay of so much Fantasy fiction. There aren’t many acts of violence in this novel but when they do occur they are all the more shocking. Though some of its characters display physical and moral bravery, `In the Forests of Serre’ is not Heroic Fantasy.  Traditional quests for magical objects or knowledge are shown to be useless unless they teach the seeker to understand her or himself. Shy scribe Euan barely figures in the plot summary but he is an important viewpoint character in the book. He longs to dash off and rescue the beautiful princess but instead he plays the unheroic but vital role of carer to the frail Unciel. As someone says to him at the end of the story, `Some days you battle yourself and other monsters. Some days you just make soup.’ Both are seen as equally important.

Confident wizard, Gyre doesn’t believe in the `fairy tales’ he is told about the goblins, ogres and witches of Serre so it is a nasty shock when he encounters the wild magic that inhabits the forests. McKillip particularly draws on Russian folklore for this novel, making use of the traditional characters of the Firebird and the witch Baba Yaga, who also feature in Peter Morwood’s `Prince Ivan Saga’ which I recommended in April of this year. The main word that I associate with McKillip’s writing is beauty. Her books are always a visual treat and she excels at describing `the woman who was a bird who was fire’ . Who wouldn’t be enchanted by `amber eyes, fiery hair tumbling down towards the water, a face carved of ivory, with cheekbones like crescent moons, a smile like bird’s wings angling upward…’ ? Yet McKillip is equally good at conjuring up the terrifying witch who seems to be the glorious  Firebird’s opposite. Like Baba Yaga, Brume has a reputation for enticing people into her moveable cottage and stewing them in her cauldron.Apart from her green-lensed spectacles, Brume is different every time we meet her in the novel. Sometimes she is a toad-woman, `massive, damp and slightly green’, sometimes she has `teeth as pointed as an animal’s’ and `knobby, calloused feet that broadened to an inhuman size when she picked up her cottage and carried it.’ Sometimes she is disconcertingly young and lovely. Anyone who encounters Brume will be given difficult choices to make and find out things about themselves that they may not want to know.

Detachable hearts are a common motif in fairy tales and Brume has quite a collection of  them in her cottage. Like the film `Gravity’, `In the Forests of Serre’ explores why and how a person can go on living after the worst has happened. Prince Ronan thinks that the only way to survive his bereavement is to live without a heart, but he is wrong. Uriel’s heart has been broken by a monster he could not kill because it was never truly alive. Gyre has stolen someone else’s heart and pays a high price for it. This young wizard’s confrontation with the darkness within himself is going to remind a lot of readers of  the plot of Ursula Le Guin’s classic novel, `A Wizard of Earthsea’. McKillip acknowledges the similarity with a fleeting reference to Le Guin’s hero, Ged, – see if you can spot it. It may be heresy, but I prefer McKillip’s novel to Le Guin’s, partly because there is more warmth and humour in the former’s writing and partly because `In the Forests of Serre’ has an attractive heroine in Princess Sidonie and the Firebird and the Witch are such memorable personifications of hopes and fears beyond the boundaries of normal experience. Some may feel that the deeper meanings of this story are spelled out too plainly and that a dark tale ends in too much sweetness and light, but McKillip is an author who makes happy endings seem attainable for almost everyone.  Until next time…