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.
“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.”