McKillip, Patricia A.: Forgotten Beasts of Eld, The

I hate it when I re-read a book and discover that it’s not as good as I remember. Patricia A. McKillip’s The Forgotten Beasts of Eld absolutely enthralled me when I first read it—I distinctly remember sitting at the kitchen table in my D.C. apartment during a college internship and being dimly aware of my roommates coming and going, but being unable to stop reading to say hello or move somewhere more comfortable. I re-read it recently when I was thinking about post-Tolkien fantasy with beautiful prose.

Sybel is a wizard and the daughter of wizards who have buit a menagerie of fantastic animals by calling them—summoning them by name and binding their wills. Her only desire is to call the Liralen, a great white bird with trailing wings: until Coren, one of the Lords of Sirle, comes to her gate with an infant, her cousin and a pawn in the struggle between Sirle and the King of Eldwold. The story is about power, revenge, and what one will, won’t, and should do for love.

The prose is exquisite, the characters sympathetic, the moral and emotional dilemmas gripping, and the magic numinous. But on this re-read, two things bothered me. The first was small: “Blammor” is a terrible name, especially for a thing of dread and terror. The second, alas, is large: the very ending struck me as an unnoticed undercutting or contradiction of what I took to be the moral force of the entire story. As a result, I’m not sure I can recommend this book any more, which is too bad, because it had been the one novel of McKillip’s that I really liked.

Perhaps I should re-read the Riddlemaster series and see if it makes any sense to me now.

9 Comments

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  1. Blammor is no Ghisteslwchlohm, but what is?
    I think I actually bought this book while I was a freshman in college, but then my experience with Riddlemaster put me off McKillip indefinitely, so it has yet to be read.

  2. Hrm. I would have said that Riddlemaster was one of McKillip’s more accessible works, given the use of so many epic fantasy tropes, had anyone asked me. I guess it’s just as well no one did.
    I only read Eld recently but despite that I don’t recall it very well – I think the ending did bother me in some way but it might not have been for the same reason.

  3. Dan, I have no idea now why I reacted to Riddlemaster as I did, just that I felt like I had no idea what was going on.
    I may not have been the right reader for it at the time.

  4. I too was muddled by Riddlemaster, and couldn’t see what people found appealing about it. I also never finished The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (despite the admittedly beautiful prose).
    That said, a year or two ago I randomly tried McKillip’s later novel Od Magic, and liked it very much indeed. FWIW.

  5. I am not surprised in general that people have widely varying reactions to McKillip, since I do as well. I do not think I really understood the two Cygnet books, for example, although they were interesting, and I am not sure I managed to engage with Eld properly – I felt a sort of mental gear slippage while reading it.
    I generally do not have this kind of problem with her more recent books (such as Od Magic) for whatever reason. My favorite is Alphabet of Thorn, but they’re all at least interesting.

  6. I agree with Dan Blum about having widely varying reactions to McKillip. The first time I started Riddlemaster I got about one chapter in. Now the trilogy is one of my favorites (the big payoffs for me are at the end of the first book and the middle of the third). I liked the Cygnet books (though I don’t think I understood them), and I haven’t really liked any of her more recent books all that much, though they’re interesting.

  7. Thanks, that’s good to know.

  8. Dan Blum @ #5:
    Thanks for the recommendation on Alphabet of Thorn. I enjoyed it quite a bit, though not (if memory serves, which it doesn’t do as well these days) quite as much as Od Magic.

  9. I have loved the Riddlemaster books for decades. Oddly enough, I don’t like McKillip’s later books as much, which suggests that there really is a division in her work. I think that the earlier books are more rooted in the world; the later ones are clever but somehow I never really felt that the world beyond the edges of the book existed; they were wonderful jewelled fairy boxes, exquisitely crafted, but like nothing except themselves.
    The Riddlemaster books drew in wind and water, air and fire, and all the history of the world besides. They’re a window into that other world, not a box containing all there ever was or will be of it.

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