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Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip

Sybel, the beautiful great-granddaughter of the wizard Heald, has grown up on Eld Mountain with only the fantastic beasts summoned there by wizardry as companions. She cares nothing for humans until, when she is 16, a baby is brought for her to raise, a baby who awakens emotions that she has never known before.

But the baby is Tamlorn, the only son of King Drede, and, inevitably, Sybel becomes entangled in the human world of love, war and revenge – and only her beasts can save her from the ultimate destruction…
Patricia A. McKillip has been publishing fantasy novels for nearly forty-five years now, perhaps most famously The Riddle-Master of Hed; but her second novel, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, is one of her longest lasting works. I saw Max Gladstone admiring it on Twitter, and given his tastes, took a look myself…

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is one of those novels that feels like it is drawing on older, ancient forms of literature; like Poul Anderson’s Broken Sword before it, McKillip’s Forgotten Beasts of Eld has the feeling of a saga about it – although in terms of plot, it is perhaps more like a Greek tragedy. The opening of the novel sets the scene; it draws on a long heritage, the genealogy of characters, and a wider world. It also sets up the themes of the novel: agency, and specifically female agency; and the consequences of actions playing out over time. The whole feel is that of a saga, and McKillip embraces that kind of dramatic gravity, with stories within stories abounding, and hints of other stories yet again. The writing isn’t heavy handed, but it is weighty; a kind of gravitas, without being leaden or dull, but really brings out the magic.

This is a saga with a very close focus on Sybel, the woman who can call beasts who we meet through her father and grandfather at the start of the novel. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is all about her as a woman and a wizard; at different times, McKillip focuses on each of these qualities, not to the exclusion of the other, but as complementary aspects of her character, driven by those around her. It’s an interesting novel in the way that McKillip doesn’t give us Sybel’s innermost emotions, much of the time; we see a lot of action, and the emotions of others, but there are parts of the book where we’re inferring Sybel’s feelings from her actions, and McKillip plays that very well.

The whole cast is incredibly human; they’re flawed, broken people, who are healed or hurt by turns, and The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is fascinating by the way our relationships with others are defined by our pasts. Hence, much of the book is defined by the relationships between Sybel, Coren, and Tamlorn; Coren delivers Tamlorn to Sybel as a baby, and returns later, and the complexity of that initial delivery plays out its consequences across the whole novel. McKillip even gives the beasts themselves fantastic characterisations; they’re rather more one-dimensional than the humans, but still brilliantly scintillating and really individual.

The thing which really gives The Forgotten Beasts of Eld resonance more than forty years after it was published is its themes. There are two joint themes, of agency and its loss, and of the consequences of actions. The first one is explored from the very start of the book, with McKillip talking about wizards using their powers to call women to them for the purpose of childbearing; she doesn’t explicitly label this rape, but it’s very much there in the way she talks about it. The way the magic of calling people and controlling their will plays out across the novel makes the rape analogy stronger and more powerful as it goes on.

The other theme very much feels like it is approached in the same way as Greek tragedy; The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is all about consequences. McKillip loads a number of Chekov’s Guns across the course of the novel, but doesn’t fire them all; instead, she sets them up so each of them will fire the next, each triggering reactions from other characters who then trigger reactions again. There’s a feeling of inevitability about the events, although McKillip consistently plays with that, so some expected events don’t play out how one might expect.

There are flaws; The Forgotten Beasts of Eld ends incredibly neatly, with everything tied up, and the inevitability and messiness of the novel seems to vanish in a simple ending that McKillip deploys to make everyone happy and get their just desserts. Similarly, the plot has strained moments that it brushes over by concealment; how certain aspects of the story happen, how events come to pass, can be a little strained and under-explained, which leaves moments where the suspension of disbelief has to work that bit harder.

In the end though, suspending your disbelief in these moments is worth it; The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is a beautiful novel in which McKillip deals with hugely important themes with a deeply humane touch and magical prose.

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