In the Forests of Serre
by Patricia A. McKillip
Ace, 2003, ISBN 0-441-01011-3
A book review by Elisabeth Carey
This book is distantly related to one of McKillip's earlier fantasies, The Tower at Stony Wood. However, while Tower rambled pleasantly but aimlessly, and seemed in the end quite pointless, Serre is much more coherent and focussed.
Prince Ronan, heir to the throne of Serre, is mourning the loss of his wife and child, and is looking for a way to die without outright committing suicide. His father King Ferus, however, has other plans for him--he wants to marry his son to Princess Sidonie, the daughter of the King of Dacia, so that his heirs will inherit the fabled magic of little Dacia. King Arnou of Dacia is strongly motivated to agree to this plan, because King Ferus has been conquering everything in sight, and these days the magic of Dacia is pretty much all fable; only Ferus' belief in it is currently protecting Dacia from armed conquest by Serre. Princess Sidonie finds the idea of marrying Ferus' son appalling and reprehensible, and only reluctantly sets off on her journey to Serre, with an entourage that includes, not the aging and currently weakened wizard who has served Dacia for centuries (he's the link to Tower), but a young, powerful wizard named Gyre. Gyre has no ties to Dacia except some previous encounters with the aging Unciel, and has promised to keep Princess Sidonie safe, but feels no other loyalty or obligation to Dacia or Dacia's king.
Although Serre, unlike Dacia, has never had magic in its royal line, the land itself is laden with magic, magical creatures, and witches of dubious intentions. While Ronan is on his way back home from a battle where he failed to get himself killed, he encounters the most terrifying of these witches, Brume, and accidentally kills her white hen. She curses him, and he wanders madly through the forest, chasing the firebird.
Meanwhile, Sidonie reaches Serre's royal palace, where Prince Ronan's inadequately explained absence causes some consternation, and Sidonie's fate is in the hands of the ruthless and heartless King Ferus, and her only protection is the wizard Gyre. Gyre, as it happens, is ambitious, and feels no obligation to anyone except for his promise to Unciel to keep Sidonie safe. Since Sidonie does feel obligations beyond a narrow definition of her own safety, there is a potential conflict in their goals, and the only possible help for the princess is for the prince to return.
But for that to happen, Ronan has to want to return, badly enough to find the key to Brume's curse.
It's a nicely intricate story, with what should be stock characters turning out to be complex and interesting. Very enjoyable.