Let’s Read Patricia A. McKillip’s The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (Chapter 1, pp 1-21)

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.

Some comments on Derek Maine’s Pontoon Boat is in the Front Yard

Your mom’s a slut. I just have to throw that out there. This isn’t going to be easy for either of us but we’re ripping off the band-aid, son.

The anger of a wronged man is vast and knowable.  Vast, because they perceive that the world is pulling them down, their jobs, their women, their children, their obligations – it’s all one giant conspiracy to keep them low, down, trodden upon. These men never look to economics or class.  No, that problem is too big.  And so it is the immediate surrounds which are to blame.

Knowable because they rage online, in person, to friends, to family.  Their rage comes in the form of fists, of Facebook posts, of picketing in the streets.  They cannot be silent.  Whatever grievance they  have must be heard, tediously stretching out across the decades that make up their miserable lives.

Women rage, too, but they have the modesty to remain quiet about it.

In Derek Maine’s Pontoon Boat is in the Front Yard, the rage comes via a message sent from father to son.  The son is 16, and his life has been hard.  But this story is not about him. No, instead it is about the father and his wife, ex-wife, the woman for whom his rage knows no bounds.  He airs his grievances to his son in explicit, detailed form, ostensibly wrapping them around the errors of the step-father, but this is not the entire truth.  The father’s rage reaches back to when she was young, at school, and extends forward to now and into the future.  This is a rage that will never be loosened.

The step-father, we learn, abuses the teenager, and at the end of the communication the father provides an answer to his son.  A gun, in the boat.  One squeeze of the trigger and the problems are over.  I note grimly that here the father offloads the responsibility of solving his son’s horrific problems to the child himself.  He will not pull the trigger – he will simply rage.

To his small credit, the father offers up a list of his own flaws, including that of violence against the mother.  But this list is used as a method of showing that he isn’t as bad as the others.

In truth they are all rotten.  Perhaps the son is not, but everyone else is a dark planet orbiting a fallen star.

Maine’s language is loose, and crude, and a touch too-heavy on the swearing.  Just a touch.  This message, however it is being communicated, is one of speech, streaming directly from the narrator in an out-pouring of anger.  This works, the character is believable, but the length of the short piece is just about as long as I’d like to spend inside his mind.  It’s exhaustive, and imagine living like that?

There are some shining bright spots.  Twice, the narrator mentions spending time with his son, and here the tone is pleasant, even kind.  It’s a nice balance, and shows that no matter how these men might hate the world, what they love, they love.

This strikes me as a very American story.  This is not a criticism or a commendation.  The ending involves violence, or at least, encouraging violence, and in a manner that I, as an Australia, perceive as close to uniquely American.  The answer provided is not to run away, or change, or engage the authorities – it is violence.  Violence, violence, violence.

The rage continues, the generations feed on one another, and in twenty years time this teenage boy will be saying something much the same to his own son, likely from jail, unquestionably full of his own inherited anger.

Derek Maine’s Pontoon Boat is in the Front Yard is a short story published online at Misery Tourism.  Derek’s Twitter account is @derekmainelives.

2020 in Review – the first 100 Books

October 28 marks the day when I read 100 books for the year.

Let’s take a look at the breakdown of what I read –

Books written by men – 81

Books written by women – 19

Translated works – 70

Nobel Prize winning works – 21

Books by Small Presses – 46

Fantasy novels – 5

Average pages – 168 pages

So let’s analyse the above

Obviously the glaring, massive, disappointing issue is the percentage of women writers compared to men. It’s not good enough and I am honestly surprised. If I was asked I would have said perhaps 40%, but here we are under 20% for the year.

I need to do better. I have enough books written by women to dramatically improve these numbers.

The next book, which I am almost done at the time of writing this, was written by a woman, but that would only take the year from 19% to 19.8%. Lots and lots of work here to do.

Some of the notable women writers I have read this year include the incomparable Marguerite Duras. I prefer her late works, which are sparse, pristine, close to formless. Open Letter publish a number of these and I would strongly, strongly recommend checking out her work.

I like Rachel Cusk, but A Life’s Work is not a book I connected with particularly well. In it, Cusk grapples with being pregnant and then having a child. And I mean, she really grapples with it. To the point where she struggles with whether or not she hates her child while loving it. And, for me, with a very young child, I just found it too much. I don’t love/hate my child, and I haven’t struggled with parenting. Perhaps when she’s 10 and I am distanced from the baby-phase I might be able to read such a book dispassionately, but alas at this stage in my life I cannot.

Christa Wolf’s No Place on Earth was very strong. Boiled down it’s an historical dialogue between a famous man and an unknown (to us, historically) woman. They discuss art, love, life and it’s all absolutely fascinating.

Otherwise, 70% being translated work seems about right. I certainly actively go out of my way to read translated work, and this is shown here. I would anticipate most years of my life would show 60-80% translated books, particularly now that my Updike/Bellow/Roth obsession of my twenties appears to be over.

Nobel Prize winners at 21 is fine. I have no real goal here other than I want to read as many as I can. One book in five seems fine, fine, fine. I’m drawn to novellas, as can be seen above, and it sometimes seems that most Nobel writers write big chunky bois.

Small Presses at 46% is good. I’d like to push that up to 50%, but I’m fine with where it is. Special shout-out as always to Open Letter, which make up 12 of the books I’ve read this year. They are doing excellent work. Other big hitters for me is Dalkey Archive Press and New Directions. The stalwarts, in other words.

Fantasy at 5 books is ok. I want it lower than 10% and here we are. Not much to say here. I tend to use fantasy as a way to kickstart my reading slumps and get me back into literature, but at times I’ll really dive deep into fantasy. Not this year, as we can see – though I have bought a simply enormous amount of books in the SF Masterworks and Fantasy Masterworks series. One day.

The average pages strikes me as slightly lower than I thought, but broadly speaking about right. I have a fondness for novellas. I have for years and I will continue to do so. The kind of literature I enjoy most explores an idea fully and then gets out of the way. That’s a novella.

So what does the rest of the year bring? Likely twenty more books. And they really, really need to be more heavily female. I’ve disappointed myself here, and with only two months left in the year I don’t really see how I rectify this in any meaningful way. Reading 20 books, all by women, before the year ends, still only puts me at one third written by females. Which I mean is better but c’mon.

At any rate, reading is not a numbers game, or not entirely so. I have not engaged in enough reading projects this year (ie – Spanish writers, Holocaust literature, Oulipo, etc), and this is something I’d like to do more of. Twitter is aflutter with reading projects and months devoted to a country or language or theme. And sure, that’s pretty great. But I chafe under the rope of another individual’s project, and so I will go it alone, reading, reading, reading.

But definitely reading more women.

Update – And here are the books

Barthes, RolandCamera Lucida28 October 2020
Thiong’o, Ngugi WaWeep Not, Child27 October 2020
Handke, PeterDon Juan25 October 2020
Zweig, StefanJourneys28 September 2020
Darrieussecq, MarieOur Life in the Forest26 September 2020
Leiber, FritzSwords Against Wizardry26 September 2020
Eaves, WillMurmur24 September 2020
Didion, JoanSouth and West24 September 2020
Pessoa, FernandoSelected Poems5 September 2020
Calvino, ItaloInvisible Cities3 September 2020
Bataille, GeorgesStory of the Eye2 September 2020
Aira, CesarDinner1 September 2020
Greene, GrahamDoctor Fischer of Geneva31 August 2020
Ionescu, AnamariaZodiac31 August 2020
Beckett, SamuelThe Lost Ones26 August 2020
Madej, RyanThe Marianas Trench26 August 2020
King, StephenThe Gunslinger25 August 2020
Eliot, T. S.Murder in the Cathedral25 August 2020
Bolano, RobertoThe Spirit of Science Fiction16 August 2020
Perec, GeorgesAn Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris16 August 2020
Levi, PrimoMoments of Reprieve15 August 2020
Origo, IrisA Chill in the Air11 August 2020
Beckett, SamuelDante and the Lobster9 August 2020
Pilch, JerzyA Thousand Peaceful Cities8 August 2020
Saer, Juan JoseThe One Before7 August 2020
Togawa, MasakoThe Master Key6 August 2020
Sebald, W. G.Campo Santo5 August 2020
Gappah, PetinaAn Elegy for Easterly3 August 2020
Bolano, RobertoBy Night in Chile31 July 2020
Vila-Matas, EnriqueBecause She Never Asked30 July 2020
Armitage, SamuelBook of Matches29 July 2020
Coleridge, Samuel TaylorThe Rime of the Ancient Mariner23 July 2020
Review of Contemporary FictionGeorges Perec Issue22 July 2020
Hamsun, KnutVictoria22 July 2020
Cusk, RachelA Life’s Work21 July 2020
Sirieix, FredSecret Service17 July 2020
Roth, PhilipZuckerman Unbound11 July 2020
Whitehead, ColsonApex Hides the Hurt10 July 2020
Xingjian, GaoThe case for literature25 June 2020
Roth, PhilipThe Ghost Writer23 June 2020
Beckett, SamuelThe Expelled and Other Novellas22 June 2020
Mieville, ChinaIron Council22 June 2020
Fernandez Mallo, AgustinNocilla Experience16 June 2020
Turner, DavidVictorian and Edwardian Railway Travel13 June 2020
Nors, DortheMirror, Shoulder, Signal9 June 2020
Modiano, RenzoOf Jewish Race4 June 2020
OndjakiThe Whistler3 June 2020
Sosnowski, AndrzejLodgings2 June 2020
Navarro, ElviraA Working Woman1 June 2020
Modiano, PatrickHoneymoon1 June 2020
France, AnatoleBalthasar31 May 2020
Baudelaire, CharlesThe Flowers of Evil26 May 2020
Wolf, ChristaNo Place on Earth26 May 2020
Brecht, BertoltMother Courage and her Children22 May 2020
Mella, DanielOlder Brother21 May 2020
Azam, MaryamThe Hijab Files19 May 2020
Tenev, GeorgiParty Headquarters18 May 2020
Alexievich, SvetlanaZinky Boys17 May 2020
Rey Rosa, RodrigoSeverina16 May 2020
Hesse, HermannJourney to the East14 May 2020
Neruda, PabloSelected Poems13 May 2020
Heaney, SeamusNew Selected Poems 1966-198712 May 2020
Baudelaire, CharlesParis Spleen9 May 2020
Duras, MargueriteL’Amour7 May 2020
Erikson, StevenGardens of the Moon6 May 2020
Holub, MiroslavVanishing Lung Syndrome6 May 2020
Krasznahorkai, LaszloSatantango30 April 2020
Maupassant, Gu dePierre and Jean29 April 2020
Barba, AndresSuch Small Hands28 April 2020
Camus, AlbertThe Plague28 April 2020
Watson, HollyNever Seen the Sea26 April 2020
Saat, MariThe Saviour of Lasnamae25 April 2020
Saramago, JoseAll the Names23 April 2020
Sebald, W. G.Vertigo18 April 2020
Ogawa, YokoThe Housekeeper and the Professor15 April 2020
Modiano, PatrickSleep of Memory14 April 2020
Rothes, JoshuaThe Art of the Great Dictators19 March 2020
Pizarnik, AlejandraThe Galloping Hour17 March 2020
Camus, AlbertThe Outsider16 March 2020
Bidart, FrankHalf-Light – Collected Poems15 March 2020
Rilke, Rainer MariaSonnets to Orpheus14 March 2020
de Juan, Jose LuisNapoleon’s Beekeeper12 March 2020
Modiano, PatrickThe Search Warrant9 March 2020
Mieville, ChinaThe Scar8 March 2020
Transtromer, TomasThe Half-Finished Heaven2 March 2020
Igov, AngelA Short Tale of Shame20 February 2020
Wolf, RorTwo or Three Years Later11 February 2020
Vollmann, William TWhores for Gloria6 February 2020
Kadare, IsmailBroken April5 February 2020
Mahfouz, NaguibMiramar4 February 2020
Duras, MargueriteAbahn Sabana David3 February 2020
Ljubic, NicolStillness of the Sea3 February 2020
Mariani, LucioTraces of Time1 February 2020
Duras, MargueriteYann Andrea Steiner30 January 2020
Blatnik, AndrejYou Do Understand24 January 2020
Nordbrandt, HenrikWhen we Leave Each Other23 January 2020
Zambra, AlejandroMultiple Choice16 January 2020
Hazan, EricA History of the Barricade9 January 2020
Hesse, HermannPoems6 January 2020
Zambra, AlejandroThe Private Life of Trees2 January 2020

I Remember – #1011

I remember leaving Brisbane early in the morning, and then eating sashimi and sushi in a tiny restaurant in Sennichimae in Osaka by the time it was night.  This by Jetstar, via Cairns, with two (minor) flight upgrades, and a (foolish) $150 taxi ride from the Osaka airport to our hotel.

-28 June 2017

This post is part of the I Remember series.

I Remember – #1009

remember playing Settlers of Catan with Anna and her siblings, and her sister’s husband (then, I think, her boyfriend), and how outrageously competitive Anna and I were together, to the point where we regularly exploded at and argued with one another in front of everyone.

-26 June 2017

This post is part of the I Remember series.

Some brief thoughts on Ryan Madej’s The Marianas Trench

Alcohol, drugs, sex, blood

It is the mystery that draws you in.  What is this place?  Who are these people? Their names are, initially, reduced to single letters – R, M.  What are they doing?  Why is it so gloomy?  Is this place an allegory or something else?

The narrator has, among their other problems, an issue with memory.  They can’t quite grasp time, it slips through their fingers.

Everyone seems to be in search of Mantra Hand.  You look like him, a character muses near the end of the book.  Pages later, the narrator adopts the name with a woman he meets and shares a drink with.  Her name, too, is pregnant with possibility – Caissa.

Drugs, sex, blood, alcohol

If I am jumping around a touch it is because Ryan Madej’s novella, The Marianas Trench (published by Orbis Tertius Press), is uncomfortably concerned with shifting time and place, and clarity of narrative expression.  He wants the reader to feel on edge.  The tone is ominous and the skies are always grey.  It is as though leeches had sucked dry the sounds, the colours, the smells, the vibrancy of the air.  This is Midtown.

The plot itself is reasonably easy to pin down even if the specifics of it are not.  The narrator has come into possession of

the journals, letters, and collages collected under the The Marianas Trench by Mantra Hand

“Everyone in Midtown”, the narrator tells us, knows the name Mantra Hand, and all, it seems, flit knowingly or otherwise from the real world into the occult.  He reads the works, he drinks, he has sex with women.  The people he interact with allude to esoteric matters, and the narrator takes it in his stride.  Very often he is unwell; very often he is unsure of the time or the day.  In Midtown such matters lose their focus, become less relevant.  Shadows sharpen.

This is the kind of novella where there is a City, there are Outskirts, there is Midtown.  This is a risk – universality or totality are difficult concepts to convey, but Madej manages it, and particularly well with Midtown.  It is Plato’s Form of Midtown, the essence of the essence of a city.

Sex, blood, alcohol, drugs

Menace hangs in the air.  Much of the pages of the novella are taken up with sex, which is bloodless even when blood is drawn; much of the novella is taken up with drinking, which causes no joy or sadness, just stupor and the passing of time.  Drugs are taken, but they serve to cloud already clouded minds.

Menace hangs in the air.  There is a scene where the narrator is handed a cup of water.  He notes that even the water is somewhat darkened in Midtown – chilling.  Chilling.

When something comes into the Archive it means one of two things: either the person is deceased or the person has consciously chosen to have the material archived.  Neither one of these conditions could be confirmed by any source … Midtown has only one way in and one way out, and Mantra Hand left the party early.

Madej plays with the ways in which a scene can be constructed, particularly around dialogue.  At times, he borrows from Gaddis or Joyce, beginning speech with a hyphen; other times scenes are entirely in italics, and at still other times dialogue is marked carefully and normally, with ‘he said, she said’ markers.  Chunks of text whirl dizzyingly down the the paths of different literary schools.

It is, perhaps, the vagueness which appeals most strongly across the narrative.  Places are rarely described beyond the most ordinary of words, and the characters themselves are hardly provided any visual cues at all.  It is a shock near the end to have a character’s engagement ring described at all, and this sudden sharpening of focus heightens the character’s perceived importance.  All of this allows the primary characters – who truly are Midtown and Mantra Hand – to hulk over the rest of the novel.  They cast long shadows.

Blood, alcohol, drugs, sex

And here is where I level with you – a novella wherein the narrator is in search of the writer of a masterpiece is exceptionally, phenomenally, my bread and butter as a reader.  I do not even need to be seduced – the clothes are off!  Thus, I was exceedingly well disposed towards liking this novella.  What I expected less was the tinges of the Occult, the esoteric highlights, the increasingly fractures sense of narrative place and time.  These appealed, also, and quite happily so.

But it should be cautioned that this is not a book for everyone.  It is narratively fragmented, and while the overarching detective plot is entirely comprehensible and enjoyable, the beat-by-beat writing demands attention and patience as the reader and the narrator together untangle Midtown and its denizens.  There very well may not be enough anchors to keep some readers connected to the book, and I could entirely sympathise with someone who found it too cobweb-strewn to continue with.  It is the kind of book where a brief spell of inattention can see 30 pages go by without your mind entirely able to process what has occurred due to the wispy nature of a lot of the description and characterisation.  All I can say is, do not let this happen to you, and if it does, re-read.  There is treasure here.

The book is one of the first by a new press, Orbis Tertius, and they have, for entirely understandable reasons, chosen to use Lulu for their printing.  This gives the book a glossy, shiny finish which I personally struggled with, and I found the font choice challenging to read at times.  I will fully admit that I have rather specific criteria for fonts, but I will say that I feel quite positive toward the size, margins and spacing of the text – this was very pleasing to my eye.

This is the first book in a planned tetralogy (though I believe the third book has somehow already been published, which is amazingly appropriate and thematically consistent), and as it stands right now my appetite has been whetted.  And I do have the third book next to me, beckoning, and so, perhaps…

(Note – While I did purchase this book outright, it’s worth noting that Ryan Madej and I exchange Twitter pleasantries fairly often.  I would hope this would leave me unaffected but it is worth noting.)  

I Remember – #1008

I remember when Anna and I lived at Thondley Street in Windsor, in a cheap brick apartment building.  We were terribly poor, and most nights we ate dinner while listening to the Acid House King’s album, Sing Along with the Acid House Kings.  And every five or ten minutes someone would walk past our front door, which directly faced into the stairwell of the apartment building, on the ground floor, where everyone needed to walk by.

-25 June 2017

This post is part of the I Remember series.

I Remember – #1007

I remember when Harry Mulisch died, and he was one of the first authors whose death created in me a true and outraged sense that a greater writer had missed out on the Nobel.  (And to think, I was alive when Borges was, too!)

-24 June 2017

This post is part of the I Remember series.