I was probably eleven or twelve when I first read The Riddle-Master of Hed, the first book in Patricia McKillip’s fantasy trilogy (aptly called the “Riddle Master” trilogy). The books were filled with incredible imagery, humor, and a sense of underlying meaning (or subtext) that I found fascinating. During that same period of time, I read Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising series, and Lloyd Alexander’s Taran books (on which Disney’s rather lamentable The Black Cauldron was based), along with a whole host of others. However, I would have to say that other than Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the Riddle Master books were the most enduring stories from those years.
Even today, when I pull out my dog-eared copies of those books, I find myself capitvated by the deceptively simple beauty of McKillip’s prose (not that I would have necessarily noted that as a child, of course). They are as effective to me now, some twenty-odd years later, as they were when I was just a boy. Which brings me, in somewhat roundabout fashion, to her latest tale, In the Forests of Serre. Like much of her work after the Riddle-Master books, this one is a rather dense read; much of what the characters say and do is sort of inferred, in an eliptical, roundabout way. There is often the sense, in McKillip’s books, of seeing only a little bit of the overall story, and that not all of it makes sense. They are often almost surreal in that things happen, or don’t happen, and people do things, or don’t do things, but they’re not quite explained or addressed clearly. For lack of a better analogy, it’s rather like you’re looking at the world of this story out of the corner of your eye; you catch a glimpse of the story peripherally, but never totally.
Does that mean that I don’t like her stories? Not at all. I truly enjoy the release of a new McKillip book, if only because I know basically what I’m going to get: a rather odd, sort of Picasso-esque fairy tale. This one is no exception. In the Forrests of Serre is, at least in part, the story of Rolan, a young prince who has gone to fight in his father’s wars – not out of a sense of obligation, but because of a desire to die. His wife and newborn child died, and he finds he has little, if anything, to live for. His father is an overbearing tyrant, and his mother is a beautiful, if retiring woman who lives largely in her husband’s shadow. Unfortunately for Rolan, his quest was unsuccessful, and he is returning home with some of his father’s soldiers.
Lost in his own thoughts, Rolan doesn’t realize his peril until it is too late – he accidentally runs over the prized hen of Brome, the evil witch who lives in a house of bones. Because Rolan will not do what she requests in recompense (she wants him to enter her house, but Rolan refuses based on the stories he’s heard), she tells him he’s about to have a “very bad day.”
That is the start of Rolan’s adventures. He finds himself trapped in a magical web that not only encircles the woman his father expects him to marry, but also a couple of wizards who are themselves caught up in a conflict with some nameless beast. His world consumed by the mysterious “firebird” who entices him with a siren’s song, Rolan and his intended bride must delve into the mysteries of the forest – and the human heart – in order to survive. As usual with McKillip, the prose is economical but at the same time quite lyrical. The characters’ dialogue is sparse but yet manages to reveal and conceal at the same time. She manages to make virtually everything a mystery of some sort, as if in some sort of post-modern pursuit of the elusive notion of “truth.” It makes for a fun – and relatively quick – read.Powered by Sidelines