Finished once again with that Harry Potter novel? What if I told you that I have an old-school novel with fantastic animals, including a greedy dragon, a talking boar, and a giant killer falcon? If that sounds fun, try The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip. It’s a story of magic, romance, and revenge. It also has one of the strongest female protagonists I’ve seen yet.
What’s the Story?
Sybel is a young wizard with power, an exotic collection of intelligent, near-mythical animals, and all the isolation she needs to do her work. Until, that is, a man in armor comes to her gates in the middle of the night clutching a baby. Thrusting the boy at her, he begs her to take care of the child. If the king finds him, the child will be as good as dead. Sybel reluctantly agrees to take in this boy, the son of the Queen of Eld (coincidentally, her aunt) and raise him as her own in this safe house in the mountains. The boy may be the son of the king, or the bastard child of another nobleman. Either way, he will be sought as a pawn in a power play between warring houses.
Before too long, their quiet life is shattered. Men come looking to use the boy and Sybel as a pawn in their games. Both find themselves caught in a tug-of-war on opposite sides of the conflict, manipulated and controlled. Before long, she is pulled forcefully into war by her need for revenge and self-preservation. In the end, she must ask herself what she is willing to sacrifice to play this game. Will she lose what little love and trust she has learned in this world for revenge? Or will she sacrifice her hatred for the sake of the handful of people she truly cares for?
Why is This a Good Book?
The book is set on a backdrop of powerful political forces fighting for control of the kingdom. Instead of that conflict being the main focus, though, we’re drawn into a more intimate view of the fight. It’s not about this noble house versus the king, or even about the boy who will sit on the throne. It’s about one woman and her growth as she’s caught in this tangle that she never wanted to be a part of.
Sybell is amazing as a strong protagonist who shows growth. She starts the story at sixteen years old, with an attitude born from isolation and introversion. She is emotionally stunted and aggressively defends her way of life, to the point where she almost has the baby-toting man thrown off the side of the mountain by a giant falcon. Said falcon reminds her that killing people is a great way to find a mob on your doorstep, effectively putting a halt to that plan. By age twenty-eight, she has grown to loving a few people but without compromising her character. She’s not sweet or even nice just because she’s learned to love someone besides herself. She is still cold and dangerous.
Even the writing reinforces this personal growth. Though written in the third person, we get this sense of mystery when it comes to other people and their motivations. The fight for the throne seems remote and almost unreal, like we have lived on this mountain with Sybel and her menagerie. We almost see the actions of others through her eyes; she is observant but doesn’t understand people, and the narrative doesn’t explicitly state motivations. Like her, we are left to our own devices to puzzle other people out.
Game of Thrones is On, Why Should I Read This?
Other people have compared Sybel to Daenerys, but there’s something immensely more threatening about a woman who really doesn’t care about most of the world burning. It’s rather like if Game of Thrones focused on just one lady and her quest for revenge. Also a lot simpler to follow who’s who and who wants who dead. Our story and our view of Eld is more intimate and personal. We care more about the people than the events. Like Sybel, at the end of the book we don’t care about these games, we care about the people we care about. If you’re one of those people who skip certain chapters just to see what happens next to someone – not judging, btw – check this book out.
It’s for these reasons that Diana Wynne Jones fans would also like The Forgotten Beasts of Eld. Her books are very much like this in some ways; personal relationships in the midst of conflict. She writes grand adventures in epic worlds, but always keeps our focus on the people and choices they make. So if you’re a fan of Howl’s Moving Castle or any of her other books, I recommend picking this one up.
Keep reading, I’ll still be here next chapter,