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Sybel is the latest in a line of keepers of a group of fantastic beasts dwelling on Eld Mountain. She cares nothing for the outside world until the warrior Coren brings into her care a baby boy, Tamlorn. Tamlorn is the son of the king, but Sybel cares nothing for his heritage. A dozen years later, the outside world returns to intrude on their peaceful lives, and Sybel and Tamlorn must choose their fate.
The Forgotten Beasts of Eld was originally published in 1974 and has since become regarded as a classic, foundational volume of modern fantasy. It mixes elements of epic fantasy - armies readying for battle, politics - with elements of fairy tales, particularly the magical beasts who live with Sybel and the way that the magic works, with sorcerers gaining power over one another through the knowledge of names and stories.
McKillip's writing discipline is awesome to behold. In just 200 pages she packs in more story and more ideas than most entire trilogies. The writing is elegant and stylish for all of its tremendous pace, and the character development of Sybel, Tamlorn and Coren is superb. Particularly powerful is the discussion of the intersection of power and morality: just because you can do something does not mean you should. Sybel's grasping of how to wield great power responsibly, unlike some of her opponents who just don't care, is explored well.
The superb prose and excellent pacing does sometimes come at the expense of other elements. McKillip provides just enough worldbuilding to support the story and no more; some may feel this hurts immersion, but I never saw it as a problem (and even something of a relief). The characterisation of secondary figures aside from the big three is also more limited, due to a lack of page time. King Drede is presented intriguingly as a complex antagonist with mixed motivations, but we don't really get to know him in depth.
These complaints are slight. McKillip's writing is compelling, her storytelling is phenomenal and the way the book balances different elements is superb. It is unsurprising to learn that the novel won the inaugural World Fantasy Award in 1975, and has since become regarded as a classic of the genre. The Forgotten Beasts of Eld (*****) is available now in the UK and USA.