The Forgotten Beasts of Eld
by Patricia A. McKillip
1975 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel
Starting from the first World Fantasy Award winner today and we start with one that despite my initial reservations turned out to pretty good. I'd call that an auspicious beginning.
Sybel is a girl just entering adulthood who lives alone in a mountain sanctuary with a menagerie of intelligent magical animals that were collected by her father. She spends her days attempting to summon a new one telepathically and they have an idyllic life until one day a man arrives on their doorstep carrying a baby. The infant is the prince of a nearby kingdom and a war is being fought to control him. Sybel refuses to have any part of it and raises the child in isolation.
So far The Forgotten Beasts of Eld isn't anything that special. It's decently told but a common story that was already cliche in 1974. Then story takes a turn for the dark. I try to avoid spoiling anything more than the beginning of the book with my descriptions I will say that the lighthearted fairytale nature of the initial chapters gives way to a harsh story of revenge and cruelty by the end.
It's not that things took an ugly turn, it's the fact that what had been a relatively shallow fairy tale before suddenly gains quite a bit of emotional depth. The transition is skillfully done where a thoughtful reader should from the beginning become more and more offput by Sybel's actions until the ultimate end of that path is shown but you'd have to be questioning the morality of her actions for this to stand out (I took it as just McPhillip sticking to genre conventions and never questioning the purity of the protagonist). If you just accept it as the protagonist's behavior (as younger readers which this book is intended for might) then reaching that mid-point changes the perspective on the entire story. It's very effective.
The development of these characters is the most fascinating portion of the novel. While there are many that act mainly as plot elements there is a central trio who develop in reaction to the twisting situation. They care about each other but at the same time have three opposing goals which may destroy them all; it adds a tension to the center of the novel.
I wouldn't call The Forgotten Beasts of Eld perfect; there's still plenty of rough edges. The dialog could use a bit of smoothing (just about everyone seems to talk in the same very formal voice) and the prose is a little clunky in parts. However I still found it to be a very engaging book because of how well drawn the characters were.
If you're appreciate fairy tale style fantasy then reading this book is a no brainer; it's exactly up that ally. Even if you don't I'd definitely recommend reading this one because it's strength in the plotting. I enjoyed it thoroughly.