The third and final batch of books in to the Monstrous Arcana line focused on everyone’s favorite brain eaters. They’re one of my favorites — deeply alien and disgusting, they’re stranger than sahuagin and, I think, more usable than beholders (the power differential is partly the reason, but the flayers also don’t seem quite so unknowable as the beholders, perhaps on account of the legs). The Illithiad (1998) is a sourcebook dedicated entirely to answering all the questions about the flayers that are hanging in the air. I am a little exhausted by the Iliad pun, but other than that, this is a fantastic book.

There’s so much! Spelljamming lore, the delightful fusion of psionics and arcane magic, their bizarre mode of reproduction (involving tadpoles and humanoid brains and ewwww), their diet, their schemes and their origins. Much of this material would be imported to 3E in Lords of Madness, and continues to define D&D’s portrayal of mind flayers decades later.

I find the mind flayers to be such perfect villains because they are not mighty. Their era has passed, their slaves revolted. Those slaves, the githyanki and the githzerai, have since become skilled in hunting and exterminating mind flayers, which has forced them to skulk and survive in the shadows. They are awful, alien things that see themselves as rulers of all creation, but in their arrogance can not truly accept that they have been brought low. They aren’t so much a force to topple, but an anathema to stamp out and guard against. I feel like they’re almost, like, a metaphor for something from the real world…

Anyway, great art throughout. I like the fact that they didn’t attempt to streamline the styles of the various artists — we get all sorts of different illithid fits here. I also love Fred Fields’ cover. “Behold this magic brain!”

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