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.