The Forgotten Beasts of Eld
by Patricia A. McKillip
240pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 10/10
Amazon Rating: 4.5/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4.06/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.07/5

Acclaimed author Patricia A. McKillip, a recipient of the World Fantasy Award for lifetime achievement, has written more than 30 novels since the publication of her first more than 40 years ago. Among the earliest of these novels is her self-described first major fantasyThe Forgotten Beasts of Eld, which won the World Fantasy Award and was selected as a finalist for the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award after its release in 1974. This beloved standalone fantasy was recently re-released in trade paperback and ebook with gorgeous cover art by Thomas Canty and a foreword by New York Times bestselling author Gail Carriger, who shares that this is her favorite book of all time and has been for more than 30 years. She also expresses her difficulty in finding words to properly describe the scope and brilliance of The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, and having just read it for the second time, I find myself in the same position. It’s a beautifully written story about a mage with a menagerie of legendary animals, and at its heart it’s about power, love and hate, choice—and Sybel herself, the extraordinary heroine who becomes entangled in human affairs after leading a secluded life like her father and grandfather before her.

Once, there was a mage, the son of another wizard, who left the city for a quiet existence on Eld Mountain, where he called to him three fantastic beasts: a black swan who had saved a princess, a boar who could solve every riddle except one, and a dragon who had accumulated great wealth. Just a small amount of the dragon’s riches was sufficient for him to build a beautiful house of polished stone and an enclosed garden for the animals, and his son inherited all these plus his father’s magical gifts. This son called to him three more fantastic beasts: a wise lyon from the deserts, a large black cat with a deep knowledge of sorcery, and a fierce falcon who once killed seven murderers. This mage also had a child—not a son, to his great surprise, but a daughter—who also had the mage-gift. He named her Sybel and died when she was only sixteen years old, leaving her alone in the mountain with the house, a well-stocked library, and six fantastic beasts.

Shortly after her father’s passing, Sybel discovers a book describing the Liralen, a great white bird, and becomes determined to add it to her menagerie. One day, as she’s calling to it, she’s interrupted by the sound of shouting at her gates and sends Ter Falcon to deal with the disruption. To her chagrin, she continues to hear human noises even after her raptor should have carried out her request to drop the intruder off the top of the mountain, and so she investigates the cause of the commotion. She finds a man, Coren of Sirle, with a baby named Tamlorn: the son of Sybel’s aunt, a queen who died in childbirth, and Coren’s brother, who was killed by the enraged king. Coren fears that the king will also kill his brother’s child and asks Sybel to care for him.

Twelve years pass during which Sybel comes to love Tamlorn like her own son, and then Coren returns to Eld Mountain bearing the news that the child is, in fact, the king’s son and only heir—and Coren’s family desires not only to make Tamlorn king but also to use Sybel’s power. Sybel refuses to comply, not wanting herself or Tamlorn to be used as a pawn in political games, but she’s unable to escape being drawn into the world beyond Eld Mountain.

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is a spellbinding novel, and like Gail Carriger wrote in the book’s foreword, I’m finding it difficult to find the words to adequately describe it. It’s a trademark McKillip book with its lovely prose, fairy tale feel, occasional moments of quiet humor, and timeless themes—and yet it’s unlike anything else I’ve read. (Of course, that uniqueness in itself is trademark McKillip!) It twists and turns and doesn’t end up where one may expect from its beginning, and yet its path is always true to Sybel and her character. It’s fantasy complete with a kingdom, magic, intelligent and/or talking animals (including a dragon!), and emphasis on threes and sevens, and like the best stories in the genre, it’s an imaginative, immersive story about humanity that lingers in the memory long after reaching the end.

I found it particularly notable that The Forgotten Beasts of Eld and its heroine still seem fresh more than 40 years after it was written, during a time when McKillip had not encountered many women like Sybel in her own reading:


But when I sat down to write my first major fantasy, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, I didn’t question the point of view that came out of my pen.  It seemed very natural to me to wonder why in the world a woman couldn’t be a witch or a wizard, or why, if she did, she had to be virginal as well.  Or why, if she was powerful and not a virgin, she was probably the evil force the male hero had to overcome.  Such was my experience reading about women in fantasy, back then.

So I wrote from the point of view of a powerful female wizard, who, even after she married, was the hero of her own story, and whose decisions, for better and for worse, were her own.

Sybel herself is this novel’s heart, and she is indeed “the hero of her own story” from beginning to end. Though she obviously bucks some tropes throughout the novel, it’s done without fanfare or drawing attention to it: she is who she is, and her personal journey is realistic and true to her. There are some brief moments showing how she defies expectations—notably, her father’s shock at having a daughter and Coren’s surprise at a woman not knowing what to do with a baby—but she is acknowledged to be a powerful woman without other characters questioning how this can be and she exerts control over her own destiny. As she goes from near isolation to becoming embroiled in the outside world, as she faces obstacles both from men who would use her power and her own inner battles, her choices are always understandable under the circumstances even if they are “for worse.”

It does feature a love story, and this too seems different from the usual. After living in seclusion, Sybel’s the one who has to learn how to love and open herself to love (not just romantically, since first she learns to love Tamlorn and befriends Malega, a neighboring witch who teaches her how to care for the baby). Once she’s married, she’s making plans and working toward her own goals while keeping secrets for her husband’s own good and protection. It’s Sybel who inhabits the light side and the dark side and everything in between as she does what she thinks is best.

Despite delving into subjects related to the shadows of the soul and becoming what one most fears, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is not what I’d call a particularly grim book, though I do want to warn potential readers that there are a couple of parts involving rape. One is just a brief mention that Sybel’s mother did not come to the mountain of her own free will, and there is also one attempted rape scene in which the woman rescues herself.

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is a fantastic book with a lot to digest, yet it’s utterly captivating and never dull. It’s especially impressive how such a refined story without much action can seem so earth-shattering decades after its publication, especially in its portrayal of the heroine at its core. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is a stunning masterpiece of fantasy, and I suspect this will not have been my last time rereading this elegantly written novel.

My Rating: 10/10

Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the publisher.