Beware of old women in the forest; especially if they live in a hut that can sprout chicken legs and run! I first came across Baba Yaga in an issue of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic. The story was titled “The Hunt” and was published in issue #38 back in June 1992. She wasn’t as scary as when I later encountered her in a couple of issues of the comic book Hellboy.
Here is a quote from Wikipedia’s page on the character:
‘In Slavic folklore, Baba Yaga is a supernatural being who appears as a deformed or ferocious-looking old woman. In Russian folklore, Baba Yaga flies around in a mortar, wields a pestle, and dwells deep in the forest in a hut usually described as standing on chicken legs.’
Returning from war, Prince Ronan of Serre accidentally tramples a white hen in the road— and earns a witch’s curse. Her words are meaningless to a man mourning his dead wife and child, but they come to pass all the same; Ronan has not been home a day before his father insists on an arranged marriage. As he gazes into the forest, desperate for a way out, Ronan glimpses a wonderful firebird perched on a nearby branch. He follows where it leads him—into a sideways world where his father’s palace no longer exists. But his intended, the beautiful Princess Sidonie, is on her way to the palace. And her fate depends on Ronan wanting to find his way home . . .
Wow! This book was so refreshing and came at a great time for me. I had hit a bit of a reading slump and this story pulled me out of it. In this lyrical fairy tale, the Baba Yaga-like witch is known as Brume. McKillip employs her as an important character who affects the destinies of the three main characters of the story: Prince Ronan of Serre, the Princess Sidonie, and the wizard Gyre. I really enjoyed the scenes set in and around the witch Brume’s weird house. You cannot guess what is going to happen next. Will Brume trick someone into her cooking pot? Will she turn them into a frog or worse? Will she give them their heart’s desire, for a price of course? McKillip’s assured writing keeps you guessing from chapter to chapter.
‘One moment, a moment as endless as time, as sweet as anticipation, he saw the warm, golden eyes, the enchanting smile; he heard the wordless song of passion and promise.’ […]
‘The next moment, he stood in the stinking, cloying shadows of what looked like the bastard offspring of a hen-coop and a hovel, with smudged, oily flames licking sullenly at a cauldron full of bones, and a monstrous woman making a noise like a chicken being plucked alive. Laughing, he realized sourly. She was laughing at him.’
First off, I want to stress that In the Forests of Serre is beautifully written. It’s also a pretty complex story with a number of plotlines that you need to focus on. I’ll be honest and admit that I got a little bit lost at one point and had to re-read a couple of scenes. But when the writing is this good, that’s not a problem at all. I almost hesitate to label this as a “fairy tale” as it seems like I’m doing the book a disservice. (We must remember that fairy tales were originally not written for children.) After checking Wikipedia, I found that the book was one of the finalists for the 2004 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature. Patricia McKillip has won this award four times.
I’m very glad I read this book because reading it was a real pleasure. I’m looking forward to reading more of McKillip’s books in the future. It’s great when you find a writer whose writing really clicks with you, especially one with such a body of work already out there. I want to thank fellow blogger Bookstooge for encouraging me to try my first Patricia McKillip book. His review of In the Forests of Serre can be found here.
Thanks for reading!