“You can weave your life so long – only so long, and then a thing in the world out of your control will tug at one vital thread and leave you patternless and subdued.”
For quite a while I have heard of this book as being an underrated gem in the fantasy genre, and after having read it myself I can see why, as there is a lot to enjoy and appreciate about it. The story follows a young woman named Sybil who lives on Eld Mountain, high atop to kingdom of Eldwold inhabited by man, with a menagerie of beasts whose care has been passed down the generations of her family and with whom she is able to telepathically communicate. She cares little for the affairs of humans until a man named Coren approaches her gates with a baby who is revealed to be the infant son of the King, and begs that she raise and protect him. She reluctantly agrees and gradually forms a deep love for the child, named Tamlorn… but when Coren returns to her life years later, she is pulled into a conflict full of ancient magic, political unrest and sacrifice that tests everything she knows about herself and the world around her. This story definitely has the general atmosphere of a 70s fantasy novel, and while I feel like its smaller size (around 200 pages) did limit my enjoyment at times in terms of pacing and character development, I still found this to be a very enchanting read.
To me, the shorter length of this novel and its general atmosphere actually made it feel more like a a grand detailed retelling of an epic myth or legend of some kind, and in that sense I loved it! The story takes place over many years so events moved fairly quickly, but I appreciated that Patricia A. McKillip took the time to stop and develop particular moments when needed. She understood that the readers don’t need a detailed recount of Sybil’s horse ride down from the mountain, but it is probably important that they fully experience her first moments being among a large group of humans given her upbringing. I guess what I’m trying to say is that she did a good job at narratively prioritizing given the short length of the book. That being said, I still felt that the shorter length did hinder my ability to become especially invested, as most of the characters didn’t have the time they needed for strong character development and/or growth, at least for me. The novel also feels a little disjointed at times, with the first half feeling very different from the second with the progression of the plot.
Another aspect of this novel that I really enjoyed, but again wish could have been developed a bit further, was the magic. In this world, those born with magic are able to control/ have power over any being they know the true name of, be they man or beast, and I feel like this premise had so much potential to explore the moral ambiguity of that kind of manipulative magic. McKillip did this briefly with a wicked wizard that Sybil has a frightening encounter with, and she does have Sybil herself reflect on the moral nature of her powers for a short while, but I wish these sorts of abilities could have been further explored and expanded upon. But at the same time, I also appreciated the mysterious aspects of this world’s magic as well, with ancient darker magic and creatures being occasionally shown/referenced… and their sparse appearances and limited information only making them all the more frightening. I know it sounds like I’m contradicting myself in my criticisms and praise of this story, but my feelings towards it were genuinely conflicting with one-another from time to time despite my general enjoyment of it.
In terms of the characters, Sybil was definitely the most interesting and well developed. Often regarded for her icy demeanor, she starts the novel being quite cold and uncaring for anyone other than her beasts, and as much as her raising of Tamlorn does open up her heart, I think it was really the relationship she develops with Coren that truly melted away her hard exterior. It was nothing groundbreaking as far as romance goes, but I was surprised by how much it touched me despite its almost fairy-tale levels of simplicity, and Coren himself was a fun, brave, caring and sympathetic character. I also really liked the reverence with which Sybil was treated because of her powers, as they can be surprisingly frightening. Her telepathic magic also gives her the ability to “call” someone, overwhelming their mind with the uncontrollable desire to be drawn to the place which they were called from, and while that premise doesn’t necessarily sound scary, McKillip’s execution of it in her writing makes it feel quite unnerving. She could be loving, terrifying, scared and deeply emotionally conflicted in what she wanted versus what was best for those around her, and it made her a fascinating protagonist. It was just a shame that the other character’s personalities were significantly less interesting, especially those of the beasts who are clearly shown to have sentience. They were mostly just sort of generically docile and obedient, and apart from Cyrin: a riddling boar with with infinite wisdom and the power of speech, I didn’t find them particularly engaging… and in a novel whose title is about the beasts, I felt like that was a bit of an issue.
I feel like all of these criticisms are making it come across like I didn’t enjoy this novel, but I really did. It was a pleasant short novel and McKillip did a great job at creating a captivating world, interesting magic, and a gripping protagonist. I would definitely recommend this to anyone looking for a quick read ripe with a retro fantasy tone and atmosphere and I’m very glad that I checked it out! 3.5/5