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Patricia McKillip: The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

CoverI’ve always liked McKillip’s writing style and this book is no exception. It’s lyrical tale about a wizard woman, her adopted son, mythical beasts, and how hard it is to live in the human world.

Sybel comes from a line of wizards who live alone on the Eld Mountain except for the unfortunate women they lure to themselves through magic. Her mother died after giving birth to her and her only companions have been her father Ogam, an old woman called Maelga, and a collection of mythical beasts. She doesn’t care for other humans at all and is not used to dealing with them.

However, some time after her father died a young man comes to her door with a baby. He claims that the baby is kin to Sybel and also a bastard. He asks Sybel to take care of the boy. Reluctantly, Sybel agrees.

For twelve years Tamlorn lives freely on Eld Mountain. Then one day, the same man comes back to Sybel and tries to convince her to let Tamlorn return. It turns out, that Tamlorn isn’t really a bastard at all but a king’s son and many people would like to use Tamlorn in their own plots and plans. However, Sybel doesn’t want Tamlorn to be used and refuses. But eventually, Tamlorn wants to know about his father and in the end both Sybel and Tam have to deal with the human world.

Once again, McKillip turns fantasy traditions on their ear. Many writers would have (and have when they use the most common trope where a farm boy is the long lost heir) taken Tam as the main character: a twelve-year-old boy who is the rightful heir to a kingdom which has strong enemies. But this is Sybel’s story. While Tam is, of course, a significant character because Sybel loves him like a son, she is still the only view point character who makes all her own decisions and have to face the consequences.

The magic in this world is different from many fantasy books. Basically, Sybel has mind powers: she can call animals and humans to her even from a long distance as long as she knows their name. She can also wipe out memories and presumably influence people’s minds in other ways. Her most prominent power, however, is her ability to mentally control the mythical creatures she has. She can talk with them silently and they must obey her. The creatures aren’t animals as such, though. They talk coherently in their minds and the Boar even talks out loud in riddles.

The mythical creatures are very interesting bunch: the Black Swan of Tirlith, Boar Cyrin who sings and talks in riddles in a sweet voice, the Dragon Gyld, the Lyon Gules, the black Cat Moriah, and the Falcon Ter. Ter is the one we see most often because he’s Tamlorn’s companion and protector. All of the creatures seem quite well-behaved although we are told that they long for the time when their names will be remembered and spoken of again. The Dragon even does something about it. Through out the book, Sybel tries to call to her Liralen which is a huge, white bird.

As is usual to McKillip, the characters face hard choices which have no easy answers.

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