Review: The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip

I’ve written about how much I love Patricia A. McKillip’s writing on this blog before and that sentiment only grows stronger with every book of hers I read. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld was originally published in 1974, and though it has been widely available to me for years (I distinctly remember seeing a copy of it in my high school library) this was my first time reading it. Of course, by the time I was done, I was wondering what took me so long?

The powerful young wizard Sybel requires the company of no man. In her exquisite stone abode, she is attended by exotic, magical beasts: Riddle-master Cyrin the boar; the treasure-starved dragon Gyld; Gules the Lyon, tawny master of the Southern Deserts; Ter, the fiercely vengeful falcon; Moriah, feline Lady of the Night. To complete her menagerie, Sybel only desires the mysterious Liralen, which eludes even her strongest enchantments.

Sybel’s solitude is shattered when a desperate soldier arrives with an endangered child. Soon she will discover that the world of men is full of love, deceit, and the temptations of vast power.

People sometimes talk about urgency in a story. The feeling of something imminent that pulls the story along. But this story moves slowly, like a slow winding stream that moves purposefully towards its destination, but doesn’t rush. Some people might prefer the tension that almost automatically comes with urgency, but there is something to be said for the story that moves forward not because it’s being pulled along by the plot, but because it is just moving that way itself.

These words can’t quite describe the tone of this book, but they might give another reader an idea of what to expect. This story moves forward because the characters are moving forward themselves, not because they are being pulled along by the plot.

One thing I noticed about this story is where it started. When I was in college, I took a screenwriting class where the teacher told us that the beginning of a story is right before everything changed. This doesn’t just apply to scripts, and really helped me with my prose writing as well. This starting just before the catalyst as it were, allows that same sense of urgency to help a writer pull a reader in. Obviously this isn’t a hard and fast rule; it’s a guideline that can help writers. This book doesn’t use that rule at all, which helps dispense with the urgency that might be found in other books, and lends itself instead to the previously mentioned slow and easy tone of the story.

In some ways this book seemed less “strange” than her other books. Other books of hers have had some sort of strangeness to them, an otherworldly air, while this book was almost mainstream by comparison. As this book was one of her first books published, it’s easy to imagine that it was also one of the first ones she wrote. I can see how she was still coming into what I, years later, think of as her style. There were also elements of other characters from other books in the characters of this book, parallels that I kept drawing in my head.

None of this should be taken to mean this book isn’t amazing. I loved this book, and read it in one sitting, gulping it down when it absolutely deserved to be savored. In fact, this book will likely make the list of the best books I read in 2017, a lesser honor than the World Fantasy Award it already won after its original publication. It definitely made me want to read some of my favorite McKillip books again—particularly the ones that may have grown out of this one.

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is written by Patricia A. McKillip and will be published by Tachyon Publications on September 19, 2017.

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