Friday, June 02, 2017

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld was McKillip's first fantasy novel, back in 1974. It was also the first winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, a year later -- and McKillip is one of only five authors to win that one twice, hitting again with Ombria in Shadow almost thirty years later.

I finally got around to reading Eld in 2017, spurred on by this spiffy new edition from Tachyon. (And, when I say "new," I actually mean "coming in September.")

Admittedly, I was five years old in 1974, and not really up to reading something as adult and smart as Eld -- though I see that it has been published for younger readers now and then, which surprises me. (It has no on-page sex, and the violence is similarly muted, but its concerns and world-view are entirely adult and it has not a spec of Bildungsroman about it -- it can be read by some smart teens, but it makes no concessions to their knowledge and has nothing to do with their worldview.)

The great thing about life, though, is that it's never too late to read a good book as long as you can read: any book that is worse read later is not that good to begin with. And Forgotten Beasts of Eld, I think, will still be good and worth reading as long as there are men and women who love and hate, who want power or to be left alone, who live with each other and themselves after doing things they didn't know they could, or would.

Eld is a secondary-world fantasy, set in a lightly-sketched, fairy-tale-esque land. There is a country that is the center of these people's world, but not necessarily any more than that. There is a mountain on which lives a young woman, the third generation of magical power to live there, all but alone, along with the mythic and wonderful creatures that her originating ancestor collected there. (In best fairy-tale fashion, McKillip begins Eld by telling us of Myk, the by-blow son of the wizard Heald, and how he came to Eld, gathered his beasts, and was followed by his son Ogam and granddaughter Sybel. This all happens, matter-of-factly, in the first four pages, to set the scene.)

Sybel is our heroine and our central character, and she begins the novel perfectly happy, living alone with her beasts on Eld Mountain. But then a warrior, Coren of Sirle, comes to her after a great battle in the lands below, with a baby that he says was the cause of the just-ended war: the illegitimate son of his brother and the queen of King Drede of Edwold. Both the baby's parents are now dead; the king is triumphant, and Sybel, that baby's cousin, is the only possible safe place in the world for little Tamlorn.

She raises that baby, but having Tam -- and having met Coren -- means that's she's no longer isolated and separate from society. And that long-standing, slow-running conflict between the King and Coren's noble family will eventually drag her into it, no matter how much she wants to stay apart.

Because once you have people that you care about, you're part of the world, and connected to the things they're connected to -- by blood or obligation or history or just chance.

Forgotten Beasts of Eld is a remarkable novel to come from such a young person: wise and deep and lucid and crisp, telling a story that contains very large things in a short space, presenting difficult decisions and hard choices without telling the reader how to feel about them. It was the first major fantasy novel in a career full of them, and it reminds me, once again, that I need to read McKillip's books more often.

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