Book review

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

208 pages | Gollancz | Fantasy, SFF

 

The digest: a true modern classic. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld should be every fantasy fan’s next novel. It’s emotive, enthralling, and massively enjoyable. This book is what I would call ‘pure’ fantasy – it tells a story quite unlike anything else I have read and reminds me of how I used to romanticise the genre – but this time I think the hype is justified. In the same breath, it is both innovative and familiar and I cannot overstate how much I enjoyed this novel.

 

From the book’s Goodreads page:

“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…”

 

 

Likes

  • First and foremost, I absolutely adore the premise and story of this novel. Sybel is effectively an (almost) all-powerful being who has the power to summon and bind mythical creatures to her. With this ability, she could be an unstoppable conquering machine – but she chooses a quiet life of solemnity and avoids other humans. She knows her power but doesn’t want to use it. Near the start of the book, Sybel is charged with looking after a baby, and suddenly she has someone else to care about for the first time in her life; she has something to fight for. Well, of course, her peaceful life doesn’t last very long and soon enough the novel takes on a more politically-focused taste, and Sybel must decide what she values, and what exactly she’s willing to do in order to achieve her goals.
    • That’s about all I can say here for obvious reasons, but you should know that this is not a straightforward tale of dragons and romance with (not-so-)noble knights. There is deception of the highest level, vulnerability like no other, and a palpable sense of tension which only comes when the power to end kingdoms is about to be unleashed. Lovely stuff.
    • The conclusion is satisfying and believable – one of the most enjoyable that I can recall. This benefits from the fact that The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is a standalone novel (which seem to be increasingly rare in the fantasy genre).
  • I am personally of the mind that for a story to be amazing, it needs to have a sense of worldbuilding quite unlike anything else. There doesn’t need to be a complex system of gods (like in The Gutter Prayer or Shattered Dreams) or a truly unique sense of self (Pratchett’s Discworld is simple without parallel in its originality – a curious idea as it’s all satire but hey ho) – though these certainly help. The worldbuilding just has to be believable enough, with hints to a wider sense of wonder and a convincing identity. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld has this.
    •  Evil kings or a class of nobles vying for power? Check.
    • A mixture of ‘familiar’ and exotic magic? Check.
    • A world where myths are actually based on truth? Check.
    • A magic system that makes sense? Check.
    • Actions which actually have consequences beyond the characters’ little bubble? Check.
      • The worldbuilding here is not in-depth. There is no thorough exploration of anything in particular (the novel is instead more character-driven, discussed below), but during my read-through it seemed to me like McKillip had a carefully constructed world in her head, and was just telling us one select episode. Loved it.
  • Part of the worldbuilding is the novel’s magic system, which is definitely closer to Lord of the Rings than the Mistborn books – there are no clearly defined rules and no limits per se.
    • As previously alluded to, our protagonist here can call mythical creatures to her and have them serve her as long as she can reign in their free will. Some animals fight harder against this than others; some long for a return to their reign of terror while others are content to sit in a nice, protected garden. Some are so unknowable that Sybel has no control over them, while others follow her commands without hesitation or questioning.
      • The variety of these creatures is impressive and further reinforces the above comment that McKillip seems to have a detailed world floating around in her head when writing The Forgotten Beasts of Eld.
    • As well as this, there is wider magic hinted at including teleportation, but this is a much smaller part of the magic system.
    • There is talk of other wizards with different sorts of magic, and magical spell books play a significant part in this story.
  • The character development for the protagonist in this novel is excellent. We see her progress from a single-minded independent young woman to a more mature, powerful mother figure to… well that’d be spoilers. But Sybel grows and becomes more fleshed out with each passing page. I always felt like her actions and thoughts were justifiable, and she was truly a character I could support.
    • This lead is more impressive than almost any other protagonist I can name. She’s not a cliche, nor a pastiche, just a bloody powerful woman. Don’t be put off by the fact that her character only really does something when presented with a baby – the majority of this story is much more focused on Sybel as an individual and not as a mother.
    • Not all characters have this level of exploration, but I think that there is enough development shared between the various human side characters, as well as the creatures bound to Sybel, to say that the character development here was very good.
      • One character, in particular, led me to take a more philosophical view of the novel and its messages – something which usually does not happen.
  • Not at all info-dump-y. Apart from an info-heavily opening few pages (which read like a fairy tale and not an instruction manual – so I found the opening enjoyable), the rest of the information we need is dispersed bit by bit.
  • The pacing is spot-on, and at no point did I feel like the author was just padding out a short story, nor was I lost in a continuous series of action scenes with no respite. The variance of the pacing means that when McKillip wants you to feel the characters’ emotions, you do so without hesitation. Especially their fear.

 

Dislikes

  • An incredibly minor niggle I had was that on a couple of occasions I had to re-read a passage to understand what exactly was going on. I don’t usually have this issue (even in denser novels), I think it’s just a quirk of this author’s style. Things can sometimes happen speedily and unexpectedly, and that’s fine, but a second look over the odd paragraph certainly helped me understand what was going on.
  • Love is not instantaneous! I am fine believing that Sybel can call mythical creatures from the other side of the world to basically be her pet, but people don’t fall in love in 10 seconds!

 

In conclusion: 4.75/5 (rounded to 5/5 where required). Just read it. I clearly loved reading The Forgotten Beasts of Eld and struggle to think of any reason why anybody else would disagree. It’s a strong character-driven story with heaps of imagination and originality which other fantasy books lack.

 

2 thoughts on “Review: The Forgotten Beasts of Eld – Patricia A. McKillip

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