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I had this book on my shelf for several years before I got around to reading it. When one of my co-workers saw me reading it in the break room he said, “I’ve had that book on my shelf for years, but I’ve never gotten around to reading it.” Now, I realize this doesn’t constitute a scientific poll, but I reckon there are a lot of people who can say the same thing. If you’ve been tripping over The Forgotten Beasts of Eld while deciding what to read next, stop. Pull it down from that shelf, crack it open, and read the first chapter. You may be surprised at how hard it is to put down.
Patricia McKillip’s choice of words isn’t always ideal. She sometimes used words like “frequently” and “perpetually,” when “often” and “always” would do. But these little slips were the exception, not the rule. I wouldn’t have noticed them if they hadn’t stuck out like a few lumps in an otherwise smooth batter. On the contrary, every page of McKillip’s prose is a garden of delight for the senses. Her writing is sheer poetry, though not in verse form. And her story is poetic too, worthy of a Greek playwright, with an elegant dramatic shape and a way of drawing you into its emotional connections. It is passionate, touching, dangerous stuff that makes the breath catch in your throat. At both the level of words and sentences, and that of the overall plot, it is writing transformed into magic.
And still, you have no idea what the story is about. Would you read it if I didn’t tell you? I should hope so. But let me clinch the deal by mentioning that it is about a wizard woman named Sybel, who lives on a lonely mountaintop with a menagerie of magical creatures whom she, like her father and grandfather before her, holds to her will through her power of calling things by name. Into her lonely sanctuary comes a man whose family has been fighting for the throne of Eldwold. Coren presses an infant into her arms, telling her to raise the child with love, and to protect him from being used as a royal pawn by King Drede and his counselors.
Young Tamlorn grows up chasing goats on the mountainside, getting his skinned knees treated by the local witch, and teaching Sybel to love with all her heart. But the outside world and its conflicting interests soon intrude. Drede comes to fetch his son and prepare him to be king. Coren comes to fetch Sybel and make her his wife. And in between, an evil wizard plays a trick on Sybel that will unsettle everything. Because of this, a young wizard woman who has but slowly learned to love, quickly learns to hate. Her anger threatens to ignite a war in which the two people she loves most will be sworn enemies.
You will feel Sybel’s bitter, burning anger. You will cringe as the shadow of great tragedy draws near. And you will swiftly accept each surprise revelation that will decide what becomes of Sybel’s love and hate. Meanwhile, you may enjoy the company of her strange, mythical beasts, such as the boar of wisdom and the giant, protective hawk. Some of the creatures she summons are more disturbing, particularly the one whose name is best spoken backward, just to be safe.
Because it depicts two contrasting magical professions — namely, wizard and witch — you may appreciate having an Occult Content Advisory to prepare you for the spiritually and ethically questionable magics you will find herein. But if you can tolerate a bit of hocus-pocus, in the service of a poetically rich fantasy tale, you’ll be glad you finally pulled The Forgotten Beasts of Eld out of your bookcase.