What grabbed me the moment I opened Patricia A. McKillip’s The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, her 1975 World Fantasy Award-winning novel, was the sheer evocativeness of the language. Like, just read this opening paragraph:
The wizard Heald coupled with a poor woman once, in the king’s city of Mondor, and she bore a son with one green eye and one black eye. Heald, who had two eyes black as the black marshes of Fyrbolg, came and went like a wind out of the woman’s life, but the child Myk stayed in Mondor until he was fifteen. Big-shouldered and strong, he was apprenticed to a smith, and men who came to have their carts mended or horses shod were inclined to curse his slowness and his sullenness, until something would stir in him, sluggish as a marsh beast waking beneath murk. Then he would turn his head and look at them out of his black eye, and they would fall silent, shift away from him. There was a streak of wizardry in him, like the streak of fire in damp, smoldering wood. He spoke rarely to men with his brief, rough voice, but when he touched a horse, a hungry dog, or a dove in a cage on market days, the fire would surface in his black eye, and his voice would run sweet as a daydreaming voice of the Slinoon River.
The world of Eldwold feels lived-in and real just on the strength of those similes. We don’t lose focus from what is ultimately a character-focused narrative for lengthy discourses as to the setting; even the titular beasts’ deeds are initially related compactly, by way of introduction. But we get enough from the sheer language of the novel to sense that we’re reading in a world that’s fully copulated and has a deep history even while the first half of the book is set almost entirely on Eld Mountain. We don’t actually visit Fyrbolg, but we have no doubt that it exists.
This is also a novel that doesn’t overstay its welcome. It tells the story of Sybel, the two she loves, and her quest for vengeance; it has no need to sprawl beyond that. I have nothing against the occasional fantasy epic but I certainly wouldn’t mind if the 217-page standalone secondary-world fantasy came back into vogue.
File #63. McKillip, Patricia A. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld. San Francisco: Tachyon, .