THE FORGOTTEN BEASTS OF ELD – Patricia A. McKillip (1974)

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld McKillip (Canty)Some authors have managed to break through the wall between genre fiction and the literary establishment. Le Guin springs to mind, and Atwood as well.

Patricia Anne McKillip will never be able to do so with a cover like the one on the left – of the 2017 edition. Beautiful as it may be, you cannot market this like Orsinian Tales, The Handmaid’s Tale, or even Piranesi.

Also the plot is harder to sell to a regular crowd: Sybel is a reclusive female wizard, surrounded by mythical beasts that are centuries old – a talking pig, a dragon, a lion, a big falcon, a black swan. Hardly experienced with emotions, Sybel is asked to raise a baby, the alleged son of some king. Gradually she becomes “entangled in the human world of love, war and revenge.”

On top of that, I’ve seen this categorized as YA – even by McKillip herself – and while a 14-year-old might enjoy this, a teenager will miss what this book is actually about – just like most people will miss the thing entirely if they can’t get past that cover and the blurb.

So can we fault people for thinking: fantasy from the 70ies for teenagers, nothing to see here, walk on, next shelf? You could say the same of A Wizard of Earthsea, but somehow Le Guin managed to get respect and four Library Of America volumes. It would be interesting to read an academic study of how that came about, but my guess is being the daughter of an anthropologist helped, as did writing about socialism, Vietnam, gender and the likes – Serious Things. McKillip, on the other hand, as far as I can tell, doesn’t seem to write about politics in her later work. She also kept on writing YA titles, not exclusively so, but maybe too many to make a blip on the radar of Literary respect.

Not that I want to make the issue a contest. It is just interesting to ponder the reception of speculative fiction, and what factors contribute to mainstream success: how would Earthsea be looked upon today without Le Guin’s later work?

Because just as Earthsea, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is about human emotions first. Pat Cadigan tries to frame the story as one about power in her introduction to the Masterworks edition I read, but that reduction doesn’t do the story justice.

So, what is this very first winner of the World Fantasy Award about? I’ll keep it spoiler free: I want nobody deterred from reading the rest of review, because The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is a masterwork indeed.

The slim novel is about many things, and every review seems to highlight something else: “a coming-of-age story that’s firmly about engaging with the world”, “about compromise and freedom”, revenge, a story about parenting and learning to let go. Love and hate do recur in most write-ups, and those seem to be the most basic foundations indeed, even though it is much more about the former than the latter.

Let me be fully clear: to me, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is one of the best books – maybe the best – I have ever read to capture some of the essential problems of the romantic relationship. At its core, it is about hiding crucial parts of yourself to protect your partner, about trust after that trust has been violated, about forgiveness and acceptance, about dishonesty. In short: it is about love and the realization that there will always be a gap between two lovers.

Most of McKillip’s characters possess a sharp realism, surprising maybe for a high fantasy tale. For if you look beyond the ostensible, this is not about True Love or Destiny or Beauty or whatever. No, it is about the reality of being human, told as a mythopoeic parable, true that, yet callous in its honesty, devoid of sugary, romantic Ideals.

Sybel might seem to have an heart of ice, but I would argue she sees life and lovers as they are, without the infatuation of a crush, yet at the same time acknowledging the necessity of having a partner to share one’s life with – a partner we will never truly understand. There is a pragmatism to McKillip’s take, but that pragmatism doesn’t blemish or diminish the reality of heartfelt emotions, as one might think if one sees the word ‘pragmatism’ mentioned in a context about love. Similarly, this is not a cynical book at all. There is more to life than scars.

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld is a manual of sorts, showing the only route to happiness is the one via acceptance and forgiveness. As everybody is flawed, our partners will hurt us – even knowingly at times. It is the adult thing to accept that, and the only way to a long-lasting alliance. (I am not talking about abusive relationships, obviously.) The maturity with which the 24-year olf McKillip wrote this is remarkable.


Much has been written about McKillip’s prose, and it is indeed powerful, at times poetic – but also a bit more difficult than the polished simplicity of Earthsea‘s. There is action in the book, but generally in the back, not in the forefront. The pacing is brisk, and McKillip covers a lot of ground in just 199 pages.

If you are intrigued, do read the excellent review on Calmgrove. After that, just order the thing. I will order some more Patricia McKillip at that, and one day reread this too. What a discovery.

A new favorite.

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (Schaumann)

“You can weave your life so long – only so long, and then a thing in the world out of your control will tug at one vital thread and leave you patternless and subdued.”


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43 responses to “THE FORGOTTEN BEASTS OF ELD – Patricia A. McKillip (1974)

  1. I’m glad and kinda relieved you enjoyed this, Bart, as it was both unexpectedly different from but yet as good as I was hoping for in a fantasy by McKillip. Highlighting its treatment of what you see as “the essential problems of a romantic relationship” is exactly what makes this an astonishing debut novel in a genre that could’ve turned out so predictable and ho-hum. Great review.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank Chris, appreciated! Could you say a few words about how this differs from her other work? I thought of reading The Changeling Sea next. Or maybe The Riddle-Master trilogy, or Ombria In Shadow.

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      • I tried a McKillip work in the 70s before giving up — though I can’t recall the title I don’t think I was in the mood for her dark visions at the time. So my only other recent read has been the Riddle-Master trilogy, which I reviewed here:

        Questions and quests


        If I had another to read it would probably be the Ombria one, maybe because of the punning title.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, I remember this one as being very good. It somehow felt wise in how it dealt with emotions. Unfortunately I can’t remember much more after 6 years. I have reviews up about The Changeling Sea and Ombria in Shadow. Both were very good. But Forgotten Beasts might be her best.

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  3. I am glad you have finally taken that step and read McKillip. If you like this, you’ll enjoy the rest of her stuff too, to varying degrees.

    I fully agree with you about that new cover. Unfortunately, this book never got a Kinuko Craft edition, which is just a shame. That would have definitely set a more literary tone. I never would have read this book based on that cover. Sadly, I think McKillip’s publishers don’t know where to pigeonhole her and so have gone with what they think will make money, ie, YA. The problem is, none of her books are shallow enough to truly fit into that category well. As shown by the fact that this re-issue didn’t reignite an interest in her as an author from kids today.

    As for reading order. I’d go with publication date. I was not a fan of Riddlemaster but my cousin, who also loves McKillip, considers it one of his favorites. So whatever you read you’re going to like. I only chose publication order because I wanted to experience her stories as she wrote them.

    Best of luck on this new journey 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    • Good to know her work is consistent enough to get a full recommendation from you.

      I’m not sure yet if McKillip is an author whose every work I want to read, so will see how long the journey lasts 🙂 Anyhow, for now I’ll probably first read Changeling Sea, and take it from there. It’s also a matter of availability, even a key work such as The Riddle-Master seems out of print, so I’ll have to source second hand sites, which is harder (read: more expensive) with new customs rules over here: every parcel from outside the EU gets an additional flat rate of 15 euros to process, no matter what’s inside. Makes using AbeBooks and the likes trickier, as most sellers are located in the USA and UK. Luckily there still is a bit of a market for English second hand books withing the EU, but available choices obviously are much limited than a couple of months ago.

      I really think she had back luck in a way. (That’s relative obviously, she can clearly make a living writing and won numerous awards, but still she doesn’t seem that well known.) Because indeed, how to pigeonhole her work? Le Guin got such a status that she became her own genre in a way, but I think indeed McKillip’s problem is that her YA fiction isn’t that YA at all.

      Also, Kinuko Craft is a new name for me, just googled her, it seems I will have to spend some time looking at pretty stuff after I hit ‘send’. Thanks for bringing it up!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I have re-read McKillip’s stuff and just ended that journey in January of this year. I’m already looking forward to yet another re-read in a handful of years. Her stuff resonates with me.

        Do you use ebooks? I can let you borrow some if you do.

        Whatever happened, I think that McKillip deserved way more attention than Le guin. McKillip’s latest book was back in ’16 and I haven’t heard any rumblings of something new, so I don’t know if she’s taking her time or if she’s done. I’d really like to get least one more new book from her before she retires.

        You can also browse the Kinuko Crafter covers on McKillip’s site itself. They’re beyond amazing.

        Liked by 1 person

        • At my current tempo it will take me years to even read 10 books of her, so a cycle three times through her oeuvre is impossible for me.

          I don’t use ebooks. I guess I’m an old fashioned purist on that front. Or not really a purist, just a bit categorical: I want to own physical copies of the things I like. But maybe I should change tack, and buy ebooks standard, and then buy the 4 and 5 star reads on paper afterwards. Might be cheaper than the other way around, since I ditch everything lower than a 4, but I hardly get 2 or 3 euros for a book in the second hand shop.

          Liked by 1 person

      • I always search second hand books at eurobuch.de and I’m really happy about it. Should work in Belgium as well!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. McKillip is one of the best kept secrets in the world if Speculative Fiction…

    Thanks for this wonderful review of one of her best works. I haven’t read this one in a long time.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I haven’t read anything by Patricia A. McKillip yet. I have a copy of The Forgotten Beast of Eld somewhere on my bookshelves.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You won’t be surprised if I tell to you to get at it! It’s a short work, it doesn’t take that much time to read, and winter seems to be a good season for it.

      Like

  6. Lovely review! Is it a coincidence that we read it nearly at the same time? I‘m secretly hoping that my review gave you a kind of push to read it 😍

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’d heard good things about this book, and McKillip in general, so I’ve collected several of her books, including this one, but have yet to try any of them. I’m putting this towards the top of my list since it’s so short.

    It’s always interesting considering why some speculative works or authors make the transition to the literary categories while others don’t. I wonder how often they intentionally work towards it versus it being done to them. And you asked a good question about whether Le Guin’s Earthsea would have made it if not for later writing. I’ve not done much reading on her history or of the times so I couldn’t even guess. I do consider myself fortunate to have been introduced to enough of the literary and speculative to know any category or label is a generalization at best, and that I can find and enjoy works from any of them.

    Thanks for the great review that’s hopefully lit the spark to prompt me to finally take the time to try McKillip’s work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it’s a shame lots of people will miss out on this novel because of all those labels.

      Do report back once you’ve finished it, curious about your thoughts. I wouldn’t sleep on it, it’s the perfect book for these wintery times.

      Liked by 1 person

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  9. Great, so that will be my next McKillip. I love her prose, her worlds, and the characters… Winter Rose is my favourite so far, but the Riddle-Master Trilogy is also great.

    Liked by 1 person

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  11. Great review, and I’ll likely read this as my second McKillip after your recommendation. I have read Winter Rose and didn’t like it, sigh, but I feel McKillip deserves a second chance. Her prose is lush but precise, and has a special rhythm to it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • While she seems to write on a certain style, from what I’ve read on opinions about her work her books actually are very diverse – even though most of them are ostensibly in that same high fantasy/dreamy/fairytale realm.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. It really is that good! Everybody should read it when they start their adventure with fantasy, right after Tolkien and the Earthsea 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Pingback: THE CHANGELING SEA – Patricia A. McKillip (1988) | Weighing a pig doesn't fatten it.

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