Fallen trees outnumber fallen men in Ron Rash's fourth novel, but not by much: The title character, a pretty young timber baroness who carries a rattlesnake-eating eagle on her arm and is about as sweet as Lady Macbeth, sees to that. Set in 1920s North Carolina, on the front lines of the battle to establish Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Serena is a sweeping book pitting deliciously evil timber magnates against dull but noble conservationists. Rash's material—ambition, greed, southern folklore, and various methods of bodily dispatch—makes the story at times overly cinematic, like a cross between Deadwood and Cold Mountain. (Rash describing a timber-cutting accident: "The hand fell first, hitting the ground palm down, fingers curling inward like the legs of a dying spider.") But, then, Appalachia in the twenties was not a land of subtleties. "I think this is what the end of the world will look like," says a false prophet, surveying the naked hills, post-clear-cut. No one disagrees, in part because the man is right and in part because most of the naysayers have gone the way of the forests. (ECCO, $25)

Serena by Ron Rash

Serena by Ron Rash

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