The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip initially stuck out to me in the antiquarian bookstore I got it from not due to its name or plot. It was because the head, tail and fore edge of my copy are red. I don’t know if that was how it came originally or if someone had meticulously coloured it in, either way it resulted in me pulling it from the shelf to look at and eventually buy. I knew nothing of the author, nor that it was published in 1974 and won the 1975 World Fantasy Award. This book shows well my typical criteria for picking the books I purchase from stores like that from the many possibilities. I often buy by what’s on the outside rather than the words within. Perhaps this was the method that the original owner of my copy did in years past, I could certainly see why that would be the case. The cover’s imagery promised a high fantasy setting and the back blurb told of ‘a wondrous quest across shimmering, fabled Elwold and beyond’, expecting a journey of peril, mystery and daring action.
While reading it was indeed a journey, it was less one of actual distance but instead emotional growth of the protagonist.
The book follows the life of Sybel, the daughter of the magician Ogam who lives in a house of white domed stone in the mountains with the fantastic beasts her father called to his service with his power that she inherited after he died. A magician’s power comes from their ability to gain control over those things which they know the name of with a magical call that draws them to the magician and under their control. The more powerful the magician, the more capable of controlling more fantastic beasts and even people they are. They can also wrest the control other wizards have over others if they’re strong enough. Sybel lives alone with her beasts, books of knowledge away from the politics of the kingdoms. Her connections are with the beasts she can communicate with psychically over vast distances, knowing little of human emotions as few of them were shown to her by her father. Her life changes however when a man called Coren arrives at her house unexpected and uninvited with a baby in his arms called Tamlorn, a distant relation of hers. He pleads that she care for him so as to hide the child from the wrath of the king of Elwold, Drede. Her reluctant acceptances of this charge is what starts the story on its journey, one that winds over many events.
The book is written in the third person with Sybel being the sole view point that you see the world from. The moments that you see her emotions described are fleeting, shown instead in her actions and words. It does make the instances where they are more significant but it made me initially very detached from her viewpoint. On reflection, I found that coldness similar to how she is at a start to Coren and the prospect of caring for a child, uncaring and indifferent to the worries of the wider world and instead focused inwardly on trying to call a beast she cannot bring to her, the Liralen. Most of the time it’s easy to know who’s speaking except when she’s communication with the beasts. All magical communication is done in italics without speech marks and only rarely saying who is speaking. The different speakers are marked with a new line but sometimes if the previous line of text was long it can be difficult to determine if it’s someone else talking on the next one, requiring on occasion for me to re-read lines to be sure. The descriptions of the world around Sybel do have detail where it matters, highlighting things important to her and the scene which allowed me to paint the places within the story myself in my imagination, the most powerful tool of any reader.
I did not warm to the book initially, finding the very beginning obstructive; so full of names and events that meant nothing to me, its efforts to quickly hammer out a world for the characters to inhabit made the start difficult. Sybel’s completely cold outlook changes almost instantly concerning the child in her possession, growing to love him in the space of a few pages with the assistance of an old lady who lives close to her home called Maelga. Then together they raise the child for many years in the space of a few sentences, over a decade passing as if it were of no importance. To the story’s progression it wasn’t but little is mentioned of that time lost to the reader, another thing trying to repel me from reading on just as Sybel continued to resist the goings on of the world around her, refuse to feel for any outside her tiny world of beasts, Maelga and her adopted son. Despite her best efforts however, the people and places beyond that bubble continue to intrude, forcing her gaze and emotions further outward to other people and the lands beyond. Through all this, Sybel’s only focus in Tamlorn’s happiness and him feeling loved, that being the motivation for all that she does concerning the outside world. As the bubble grew to pull her in deeper it began to tug at me also, piquing my curiosity as to what would occur next despite my original misgivings. Through all of this she seeks only to keep those she cares for happy, Tamlorn being the only focus at that point. I began to grow concerned however that this book would become a book focused on the medieval politics of Elwold, a slow plodding story that would be even more difficult to grasp then the beginning chapter; with countless characters and locations to keep track of, I imagined that Sybel would become as lost and confused as I’d be.
Sybel herself is a person who understands little at first of being a human, raised by a magician who cared not for emotions and only on his studies of magic and knowledge of the world’s beasts. She inherited that aloof coldness, looking inward to her own wants as well as a desire to remain apart from the dark feelings of humans, their feuds and bitterness something she seeks to avoid in solitude. Sybel discovers more about the world at the same pace we do but is as if a child when it comes to matters of feeling and the heart, unsure of herself and others when it comes to emotions. She develops and grows as the plot does and the reader travels on that journey with her, a silent companion that shares in her triumphs and failures, witnessing her become far more then she had originally been for good and ill. The other characters of significance are well fleshed out, able to distinguish them not only through name but appearance and action. Some of the beasts get more attention paid to them then others but each one is a character in their own right,
The plot is something I won’t go into great detail about in this review even though it seems like I’ve spoken a lot about it; most of what has been said is contained entirely in the first chapter with vague mentions of a general theme that runs through the beginning. What I can say is that I thought the book was heading in one direction up until roughly the middle where I started to see hints of a different, more sinister path. It kept reading hoping that it would pass but the story veered that way and I was soon presented with a very dark turn of events. It not only made me worried about what was to come, I also felt very uncomfortable reading it. There had been hints of this possibility throughout the story but I hadn’t noticed them until then. There was another theme in the book and its control; be it a character’s own emotions or other people, the power to steer the course of events to your own whim is something I hadn’t given much thought until that point. My discomfort at reading the horrifying development was such that I kept going in the hope it would pass but ready to put down the book and stop reading if it went to a point of no return. Up until that point I’d considered the book a read that wouldn’t surprise me with the revelations it showed, a slow journey where Sybel would change and I’d be gradually exposed to a bigger threat to the world that she’d have to go and solve with her fantastic menagerie of beasts. This section shattered that illusion, revealing that there were boundaries some characters were willing to step over to have absolute control, leave no uncertainty in getting what they want.
I am fortunate that in my own writing the majority of my villains have objectives with finality and certainly. Many care little for prolonged suffering of characters and focus instead on the ultimate task at hand; any misery that is caused is typically a welcome side effect but not the ultimate goal. Those villains can be horrifying in their own way, monstrous for what they do without any mercy. In a mindless foe this makes sense; it can be rationalised as animalistic instincts, creatures working to survive without the higher thought processes of sapient beings. In an intelligent one it can be anything from an alien mindset that has no room or care for empathy, fear for an outcome that they think may occur if they don’t take drastic measures or simply someone that gives no quarter in their quest, whatever it is. That’s not to say I don’t have villains who see the suffering of their foes as a boon along the way. I do and they can be as horrifying as the ones whose only desire in their enemies is their death, perhaps more so at times. They are people that can freely choose not to commit certain evils to gain their objectives yet choose to anyway.
Those villains can break down their foes piece by piece mentally or physically despite the pleading of their victims that they’ll do anything to avoid this terrible fate, breaking and then moulding them to their own needs or wants. They can see fear not as a side-effect of their actions but a desired outcome; a weapon to be wielded at weaker foes and defence against stronger ones, sword and board for a warrior of terror. Some justify it to themselves as evil deeds for a good end, others in revenge for misdeeds done to them. Others need no excuses for the atrocities they commit, doing so without regret for their own self-centred desires of power, greed or to spread terror. That’s not even considering that each villain has villains of their own, be it the forces of good trying to stop them or other people and entities who are either opposing them or whose objectives don’t mesh with their end goal. To them the heroes might be the villains but it’s not through their eyes we often see the struggles of the narrative, unable to gaze into the thought of the monster and witness their logic and reasoning laid bare. The evils these people commit are not invalidated by their reasoning or goals, the reader able to look from beyond the confines of the world within the pages and see that which should never be done to others happening. A villain has succeeded when their actions provoke a feeling of wrongness within you and for me this manifested at great discomfort and a desire to see their downfall.
The fact I continued reading beyond this point is a sign that the book did not plunge into the depths I feared it might but what lay ahead of me was unlike the tale I’d read before in ways I would learn as Sybel herself does. For it is that wrongness I felt which spurs on the second half of the book.
The event signals a significant change in the book’s pace and tone as. I found myself far more invested in the events of the world and its key players, much like Sybel does. Her reasoning for being so interested changes from what it had been before, altered by that singular event into a focus which I could understand and yet was worried by. Throughout the writing Sybel is changed by the people she meets and how they treat her, learning things good and ill and watching them alter her thinking despite her best efforts otherwise. She learns of love and of hate, feeling both in equal measure as she discovers all that it is to be human as she’s brought into the world at large. It is conflict, internal and external that is focused on in the second half of the book even in moments of peace and calm which grow fewer and further between as the pages progress. What had begun as a tale of learning to love a child evolves into something more seated in the darker emotions of humanity and it’s here that the machinations of Elwold’s politics and power structures is given in some greater detail. I was relieved to see things explained in brief by characters who presented the facts simply and only what Sybel and the reader need to know, allaying my fears of the story getting bogged down.
The climax of the book builds slowly and as it did the themes of emotion and control dominated, meshing together into one narrative which entwined together. It’s a display of how people can find themselves consumed by feelings they initially rebelled against until a reason for their being sparks within and grows, festers in the dark places of the mind and heart. These emotions can overcome the control in anyone’s lives, making them do things they normally would balk at even when it hurts all those around them. To regain control the emotion can be vented into destructive outlets that not only obliterate things around the person but they themselves, a journey into darkness and oblivion that will ultimately consume them. It was then that I realised control was a theme in the book even before the middle point, right from the very start; even though Sybel took better care of her beasts then she would of any human until Tamlorn came along, they were still there because she had control over them with her wizard powers. They had free will but she could curtail it at any moment and does so numerous times to get what she wants done. Sybel calls for the Liralen to have this beast of legend under her control, no matter how little or benevolent a captor she’d be. She could call almost anyone to her and does so a number of times, not thinking of the implications until far later in the book. The book is saying that with control there’s a price to be paid and the more you seek to weave the thread of all to your whim the more it slips from your fingers despite your best efforts; it’s not possible to keep everyone safe and untouched by your own machinations when they affect them directly, cherished pawns that you deem all-important but are by the nature of the wider plans expendable. At its core The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is a story of love and hate, control and what people will sacrifice to have that, all of it framed in a fantasy world and it took reading it in its entirety and considering the book for this review for me to see all that it is as a whole.
I originally had misgivings about The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, worries I wouldn’t enjoy it that rang true in the first few chapters as I struggled to see what tone and pace it would set. I initially didn’t like Sybel nor care for the situation she was in, her coldness rebuffing my interest. But as the story continued a window was opened for me into her mind and world, a reluctant willingness to learn and change that allowed me to become invested in her life and struggles, of her adopted child and the people of Elwold that she meets and grows to care for. Aside from the beginning chapter’s lore dump and the section in the middle that I still find uncomfortable to read I grew to enjoy the book. The changes Sybel goes through throughout the pages are ones of emotional awakening, both good and ill which I’m happy I went on with her. The ending made me smile, something I didn’t think would happen as the story descended into a dark place it might never have left were it not for the protagonist’s revelations at the end coupled with an understanding of what she really wants from life. It’s a book I’ll definitely keep on my shelves for years to come and that I hope will one day catch a guests eye so I can encourage them to read it themselves. Perhaps, like me, they’ll be drawn to it at first not by its name or the author but by its red head that sticks out among all my other books, calling them to come to it just as Sybel would a forgotten beast of legend.