I’m a huge Patricia McKillip fan, having read most of her books and short stories (and those I haven’t read, I’m saving for a rainy day), so I was over the moon when I learned that Tachyon will be reissuing her 1974 fantasy novel (and World Fantasy Award Winner), The Forgotten Beasts of Eld this fall.
Why? Because there simply aren’t enough good books in the world, and the previous edition of The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is somewhat difficult to find. Win-win!
As is typical for Tachyon editions, this one features a gorgeous cover by acclaimed artist Thomas Canty, who also provided the cover for McKillip’s recent Tachyon short story collection, Dreams of Distant Shores.
The new edition also features a forward by Gail Carriger, who rates The Forgotten Books of Eld as one of her favorite books of all time–and for a good reason. This book, along with McKillip’s beloved Riddle-Master trilogy, is one of those fantasy classics that avid readers of the genre heartily recommend. These impressive accolades are probably why I avoided The Forgotten Beasts of Eld for a long time. Even though, like I said, I’m a big McKillip fan, I was always a little apprehensive about reading it: would it live up to my massive expectations? I didn’t want it not to live up to them, so I avoiding reading it for a long time.
Of course, those fears were for naught. I’m pleased to say that The Forgotten Beasts of Eld surpassed all my expectations and reignited my love for fantasy fiction. I’ve been in something of a reading drought lately: moodily dipping in and out of books that don’t seem to grab me. This one was the exception: this book didn’t let go. Now, weeks later, I’m still thinking of Sybel, Coren, and the story’s magnificent beasts.
I’ll share why in a bit, but first I wanted to talk about why McKillip is my gold standard for fantasy.
First, McKillip is a prose sorceress. My best friend and I talk about this, and I’m absolutely convinced it’s true. I’d argue that McKillip is the best prose stylist in the fantasy field (and she certainly has the chops to compete with non-genre literary writers), and I say that as a fan of The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle, a book that contains prose of unrivaled beauty. I’m drawn to McKillip’s work because there’s something incredibly poetic about her prose style: even her most complex sentences (those from Song for the Basilisk especially) slip through the mind as easily as water and tug the reader along as irrevocably as an ocean current. And like a true sorceress, McKillip casts a spell on her reader: you’re compelled to keep reading by the force and beauty of the words on the page. Here’s an example from The Forgotten Beasts of Eld:
The great wings unfurled, black against the stars. The huge bulk lifted slowly, incredibly, away from the cold earth, through the wind-torn, whispering trees. Above the winds struck full force, billowing their cloaks, pushing against them, and they felt the immense play of muscle beneath them and the strain of wing against wind. Then came the full, smooth, joyous soar, a drowning in wind and space, a spiraling descent into darkness that flung them both beyond fear, beyond hope, beyond anything but the sudden surge of laughter that the wind tore from Coren’s mouth. Then they rose again, level with the stars, the great wings pulsing, beating a path through the darkness. The full moon, ice-white, soared with them, round and wondering as the single waking eye of a starry beast of darkness. The ghost of Eld Mountain dwindled behind them; the great peak huddled, asleep and dreaming, behind its mists. The land was black beneath them, but for faint specks of light that here and there flamed in a second plane of stars. The winds dropped past Mondor, quieted, until they melted through a silence, a cool, blue-black night that was the motionless night of dreams, dimensionless, star-touched, eternal. And at last they saw in the heart of darkness beneath them the glittering torch-lit rooms of the house of the Lord of Sirle.
The visions McKillip conjures don’t merely dissipate like a dream you can almost remember: they remain with you for a long time. I can still recall images from many of her books: the hand-puppet scene from Ombria in Shadow; Corbet Lynn melting out of sunlight in Winter Rose; the appearance of the dragon-sorcerer from The Cygnet and the Firebird. It’s images like these that inspire future generations of writers; great stories don’t appear out of thin air; they’re built upon the foundations of other great stories. (Peter Beagle talks about this extensively in his essay collection Smeagol, Deagol, and Beagle: Essays from the Headwaters of My Voice.)
What I also appreciate about McKillip’s stories are her people. She uses prose not only to paint the world, but to expose truths of the human heart. Good fantasy is driven not only by plot, but also by great characters. And the fantasy genre overall is populated by a slew of memorable characters, from Granny Weatherwax to Gandalf the Grey. What makes McKillip’s characters stand out in a sea of iconic characters is their inherent humanity. McKillip’s characters aren’t simply bad or good; they make mistakes, are unreasonable, selfish, and rarely listen; they also make noble sacrifices, make jokes, make love; they are good and bad and all things in between. Nyx, of The Sorceress and the Cygnet torments birds in order to learn how to become a great sorceress and later learns a more important lesson: how to be human; Rois, from Winter Rose, is both jealous and selfless when it comes to love; Sybel, of The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, is driven to revenge by trauma, even if her victory means losing the one thing that means the most of her. These characters are like us; they’re all too human.
McKillip also writes uniquely personal stories within the realm of fantasy. When you think of fantasy, you think of epic quests: bloodshed, battles, war, famine, filth; these are the hallmarks of epic and high fantasy. You don’t necessarily think of sorceresses who would rather be left alone to learn, thank you very much, or princes who would rather study than do battle. You think of books like The Lord of the Rings and A Game of Thrones, which are epic in size and scope. McKillip’s books, in contrast, are deceptively slim (I say “deceptively” because they are quite meaty once you start reading) and deal with personal issues.
When you think of fantasy, you also won’t think of domestic stories–low fantasy, a term I dislike because it seems so dismissive–which is chiefly what McKillip writes. And yet McKillip’s stories feel both epic and intimate at the same time. They have the particular flavor of something delicious and wholesome. While her characters regularly encounter danger, I always feel comforted when I read her books, which is refreshing in a post-Red Wedding world. McKillip’s books concern issues of hearth and home; of family bonds; of duty; of fealty; of grace. Her primary concern seems to be exploring the inner workings and motivations of her characters, rather than spinning a sprawling plot. The opening scene of Riddle-Master, where the family is squabbling over a domestic issue, wouldn’t happen in any current fantasy books, and yet the book doesn’t feel dated. You still relate to the characters, their situations, and want to know more about the beautiful, deadly world they live in.
Needless to stay, I had the bar set really high before I started reading this book. I wanted to be blown away. I wanted to feel all the feels. I wanted to marvel. And I was, and I did, and I did. Like many of McKillip’s books, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld takes place in a secondary medieval-esque world; this one is called Eldwold.
This story concerns Sybel, the only female wizard in a line of powerful (and morally grey) male wizards. She’s heir to a stone mountain and a menagerie of magnificent beasts, including a gold-hoarding dragon, a riddling boar, and a cat (who may very well be a panther, from what I could tell). In many ways, Sybel reminds me of an early version of Nyx, with her quick mind and impatience with her own humanity. Locked away in her stone house on Eld Mountain, Sybel sees very few people except the witch who lives down in the village, and she likes it that way. However, when a soldier named Coren interrupts Sybel’s studies–her quest for the legendary and elusive Liralen–to foist upon her an infant boy related to Sybel’s aunt and Coren’s brother, he and Sybel both set in motion events that will transform their fates, and that of their two kingdoms.
The plot setup has Arthurian undertones: a baby conceived in secrecy by star-crossed lovers and is spirited away in order to guard him from shadowy forces until such time as he might seek his birthright or be used in revenge. Sybel initially wants nothing to do with Coren or the baby–she’s just got too much to do and doesn’t have much use for people–but she relents, and in turn learns to love as her forefathers never could.
After Sybel raises Prince Tamlorn and comes to know the soldier better, she finds herself embroiled in political tug-of-war between two warring kingdoms. What she soon learns as the book progresses is the price of love and the true nature of revenge and whether forgiveness is possible when you’ve done the unthinkable–this is the heart of the book’s concern, which is limned by Sybel’s quest for the Liralen. I raced through this book in two days because I was so distraught by the book’s events and what Sybel might do–and whether any of my favorite characters would come out of it unscathed. The book’s pace is brisk–there are no wasted moments–although McKillip skillfully paints the scene with her gorgeous, lyrical language. While I enjoyed the book’s magic and fantasy setting, it’s the characters and their plights that tightly held my attention.
The only thing I regret about this book is that I won’t be able to read it for the first time twice–but that’s always my regret when finishing a McKillip book. It doesn’t stop me from coming back for more. If you’re reading McKillip for the first time, start with this one.
Many thanks to Tachyon and NetGalley for providing an advanced reading copy of this book.