A stand-alone fantasy book and the third McKillip book which have been translated into Finnish.

The book has four point-of-view characters but every plot description I’ve seen focuses on only one character: prince Ronan.

Granted, crown prince Ronan is the one we meet first. He has lost is wife and infant child recently. He’s lost his will to live and so he was trying to die in a war. However, he survived and is retuning home when he comes across the witch Brume’s house and kills her white hen. The witch lays a curse on him: after he leaves his fathers house the next time, he will not find his way back again until he has found Brume again. Then she steps into her house made of bones and the house gets up on its chicken legs and walks away.

When Ronan returns home, he finds out that his father the King has already arraigned a marriage to him with the youngest daughter of the king of Dacia. She’s on her way to the palace. Ronan tries to refuse but his father is a cruel and hard man. When Ronan is at last alone, he sees a firebird with the face of a woman. The bird is the most beautiful thing he has ever seen and so he follows it out of the palace and into the forest forgetting everything else.

In the next chapter we are introduced to Eaun Ash who is a scribe in Dacia. The King’s wizard Unciel chooses Eaun as his personal scribe and so Eaun starts to scribe Unciel’s adventures in the wizard’s house. Then Princess Sidonie sweeps into the house saying that she doesn’t want to marry a prince she doesn’t know. However, the king of Serre is an ambitious man. If Sidonie doesn’t agree to marry Ronan, Serre would very likely conquer Dacia. The only thing that is preventing Serre from doing so right way is that Serre’s king is afraid of Dacia’s magic. Unfortunately, that magic has waned over the years. Sidonie has no choice but to agree to go to Serre. Unciel chooses another wizard to accompany her: Gyre.

Euan also falls in love with the princess the first time he sees her. This felt to me perhaps the most clichéd element in the whole book.

Gyre is a younger wizard who lives in a different country but he agrees to go with the Princess to Serre. Unciel saved him once from terrible danger and Gyre wants to repay him. Gyre is mostly interested in magic and power, and the magical forest of Serre is very interesting to him.

Lastly, Sidonie is traveling to Serre afraid for herself and for her future. One of her ladies in waiting tells her stories about Serre and the witch Brume.

The order of the POV characters per chapter remains the same: Ronan, Euan, Gyre, and Sidonie. Euan is the most remote from the rest of the story but he provides a window into what is going on in Dacia.

The story borrows heavily from the Russian folk tales about Baba Yaga but there are elements from other tales as well. To escape the witch, Ronan has to give her his heart which he doesn’t even remember to miss. The forest has magical powers and stories can come true there. The King of Serre is a wizard, too, and he uses his magic to spy on others and to even throw a few fireballs. The firebird is a symbol of an unattainable object or thing which enchants people so thoroughly that they forget everything else.

The writing is beautiful as always with McKillip and the characters are complex even though they are quite ordinary in fantasy, at least these days. To me the characters stayed rather distant. The story felt a bit fractured because it was seen through four different eyes. Only rarely did the different characters witness the same event.

An enjoyable read but not the best I’ve read from her.