Welcome to my Let’s Read of Patricia A. McKillip’s The Forgotten Beasts of Eld.
Today I am reading Chapter 1, which takes us from pages 1 through 21.
I have begun this Let’s Read in order to expand my reading further into fantasy, particularly fantasy that is considered classic by the experts in the medium itself.
I am not well versed in fantasy as a genre. Well. I have read a number of books, but it’s all the same books that anyone else with a passing interest has read. A Song of Ice and Fire. The Wheel of Time. The Malazan Book of the Fallen. The Sword of Truth (forgive me). A bit of Joe Abercrombie, a touch of Scott Lynch, a dash of Gene Wolfe (just a dash). A book or two of Le Guin. In short – not enough, and what I have read is mostly male, mostly white, mostly epic fantasy.
What I haven’t read a lot of are the classics of the genre, or books written by women, or any group that isn’t a white male sharing their power fantasy.
I’m hoping these posts will encourage both myself to read wider, and also to engender dialogue about what fantasy is and could be and has been. Consider me ignorant but curious – help me if you know more and wish to share.
Patricia A. McKillip (McKillip) published this book when she was very young, 26, back in 1974. It won a number of awards, and forms part of Gollancz’s series, Fantasy Masterworks. I bought it on the strength of that series. She is, as of February 2021, alive, and continues to write and publish.
I am reading this book blind and sharing my impressions as I go. I am not intending on reviewing so much as sharing.
The book opens with a short introduction by Pat Cadigan. In it, he talks a little about the writer and a lot about the fact that he partied in the 1970s with a number of people. So it goes and moving on.
After that the book opens proper. McKillip begins with a prose style that clearly defines itself in the realm of fable. We learn of Sybel’s lineage, and the wizards and dark-eyed women who make up her parents and grandparents. Along the way the family’s connection to mythical beasts is explored, but honestly, these first few pages are a soup of nouns and sentences such as “The Wizard Heald coupled with a poor woman once”.
Sybel is born and, by then, the family’s connections to the outside world are mostly gone. Like us, for Sybel the names of nations and peoples are close to meaningless. Unlike us she lives with strange beasts and speaks with dragons. A man, Coren of Sirle, comes to see her, and with him is a baby, Tamlorn, a future king.
“Only…I do not know what to do with a baby. It cannot tell me what it needs.”
Coren was silent a moment. When he spoke finally, she heard the weariness haunting his voice like an overtone. “You are a girl. You should know such things.”
“Because – because you will have children someday and you – will have to know how to care for them.”
“I had no woman to care for me,” Sybel said. “My father fed me goat’s milk and taught me to read his books.”
Nonetheless she takes on the care of the baby, and starts to love him. An old woman offers to help raise the child – she leaves a gemstone for a nearby farmer in return for their cow. For the next several years as the child grows into a boy and then a man, villagers keep their barn doors open in hope that another gem might appear, another cow might be taken.
And Sybel learns to love.
Thus far, I am concerned at the sheer number of nonsense proper nouns that were thrown at me in the first few pages. Mondor. Eld. Eldwold. Terbrec. Sirle Lords. Fallow Field. Black Swan of Tirlith. King Merroc. Boar Cyrin. Gyld. These all from the first two pages. They signify little and mean less, but as I read I hold them in my mind in case they become relevant. It’s exhausting, and is an area, I think, where fantasy can be weak. How much of this is ‘world building’, and how much relevant? I hope to find out soon.
The book comes alive when Sybel and Coren discuss the baby’s plight and fate. There’s something to hold on to here, something tangible and real. I would not like it much if the book became an exercise in a strange woman learning how to learn through the magic of children, but I expect that this is not where it will go – such books aren’t considered classics, surely?
The confidence on display by McKillip is something. At twenty-six, she had the courage to open her book in such a manner, and then courage again to reduce the grandess from “Sirle Lords” to a crying baby in a handful of pages. It’s a striking first chapter, though the final page or so suffers again from Noun-ing too heavily, which perhaps bodes less well for future chapters.