December 18th, 2014

Macbeth the Usurper

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (Review) (Top Fantasy Novels of the 1970s)

Published in 1975, Patricia McKillip's The Forgotten Beasts of Eld won a World Fantasy Award, and in my opinion, the book well deserved it. The book also give weight to my theory that 60k long novels have a specialness to them that the longer novels of today have lost.

The book follows a wizard woman, Sybele, who lives with the strange beasts collected by her father and grandfather. Fate gives her a goose when a man brings her a baby, the child of some relative that she did not know. That baby was the son of a king. So when the boy was grown, his fate pulled at her own.

The writing of Eld, especially in the first half, is somewhere between mythic and ritualistic, where the conversation themselves are more representative of what was said rather than the realism that preponders today. And when not in conversation, which is most of the time, the book takes its good old time describing whatever it is that the author wants to describe. The scenes, rather than flashy or huge, are often even and small. Even the most agonizing scenes are mildly agonizing and mildly distressing. The very technique that gives us the book's abstract representation takes away from the emotional immediacy. For most of its going, this is a distant book.

The weight of the book builds on itself as you read, especially when Sybele interacts with people outside her realm, the book often reading more like a stylized romance than a fantasy book. Yet, it is a fantasy book by no small measure.

The book wins points by being about something other than English or French feudal Europe. The book is more Irish or Scottish, more about clan against clan. The nobles have a say in their kingship, and they have a fair and equal chance to take that kingship themselves. The king of this book is not divine, and not the rightful ruler merely because he is king.

The magic of McKillip is more akin to psychic powers than to the sorceries of today. The heroine works through the power of her mind. Perhaps it is better to say that ESP is magic made plausible through science fiction. These two are certainly tied, and merely switchiing magic for ESP would almost make this a work of historical science fiction rather than fantasy.

On the whole, I enjoyed the work. I found myself pleasantly surprise from the first page and reasonably entertained through the read. If you like high adventure, then this isn't your book, but if you are open to a lower-key fantasy, then check this one out. It still deserves a read.