The genre that today is labeled “fantasy” on the shelves of your local bookseller and library (or the links of your favored e-tailer) is made up of many different literary traditions. There are the mythological and the swashbuckling, the gothic and the fable, the folk tale and the fairy tale. It is to this last group that Od Magic most clearly belongs.
Eschewing any pretense of realism or grittiness, detailed settings or characters, Patricia McKillip’s latest novel is a modern fairy tale that uses exquisite language and powerful, primal symbolism to convey something as unfashionable as a moral message — as well as a strong serving of magic.
Four hundred years ago, the wizard-giantess Od saved the Kingdom of Numis. In return, Od was granted royal cooperation in setting up a school for magic in Numis’ capital city of Kelior. Over the centuries, however, royal cooperation has turned into royal control: wizard students now are taught a tightly prescribed curriculum of only those skills deemed useful in maintaining the Kingdom. Od herself has long been absent, and unschooled wizards and wizardry outside the curriculum are considered dangerous and outlawed. Says Yar, one of the school’s teachers:
“I am not allowed to say what I know. To become anything more than what I have been trained to be. I don’t teach lies, but I do not teach all I know is true, and I am not allowed the dangers of curiosity and wonder.”
Introduced into this tightly controlled system is Brenden Vetch, hired to maintain the school’s gardens by the seemingly-immortal Od during her wanderings. Vetch has taught himself the quiet magic of listening to the plants and animals of his remote mountain home, although his gift shows hints of deeper, stronger power.
He reached out, opened the door.
Inside was as empty, at first, as it had looked outside, not even a stray cobbler’s nail or a wooden foot form on the floorboards. He closed the door behind him; the chaos of steps, voices, wagon wheels, horses’ hooves faded. As he stood uncertainly, wondering where to go, the silence deepened around him. He found himself listening to it, breath indrawn, lips parted, waiting for the word that seemed about to roar into the place like a wind, and break into every birdsong, and wolf howl, and human cry of love and terror and wonder in the world. His skin prickled with apprehension and exhilaration; he took a blind step or two toward the heart of the silence, and found the word for it then in his own heart.
The idea of a school of magic figures prominently in Od Magic, but this is not a “magic school” book in the sense of a Harry Potter or even of Le Guin’s Earthsea books — though the latter are a closer match in both tone and theme. The perspective here is not that of students learning, but rather of the teachers and administrators responsible for what is learned. What is magic, Od Magic asks; how can something that is highly individual and unrepeatable, something outside the scientific method and rationality, best be taught? Indeed, can magic be taught at all with mere words, and what is the purpose of the attempt?
One often gets the feeling when reading a book that the author is attempting to describe, in an impartial, journalistic sort of way, a movie they are seeing in their mind. McKillip in contrast is one of our foremost authors who specialize in using language to actively aid in telling a story. This is a story about magic, and McKillip here deploys all the magic that language is capable of. There is a high concentration of metaphor and simile, the magic of transformation and transmutation. There are, within sentences, small jumps in time and scale, the magic of translocation. There are lists, as of spell components; there are repetition, assonance (“wooden foot form on the floorboards”) and onomatopoeia, the chants and incantations of magic. The words used in the story themselves change as the story progresses, indicating its transformation: “wonder” is a word used sparingly throughout the early portions of the book, but is repeated noticeably in the final few chapters. Word by word, sentence by sentence, we are always aware we’re being told a story about magic, and we are always very thankful to be in such good hands.
How this might seem to change to that, and then change back so that nothing really became transformed except the expressions on the watching faces. There the magic lies, Tyramin said again and again. Not in me, but in the smiling eyes and enchanted hearts. It’s they who do the work, not I.
McKillip’s style of storytelling creates a sense of narrative distance typical of fairy tale and fable: we are always aware that we’re being told a story. This is also reflected in the characters and characterizations. While Brenden Vetch is a “framing character” — the book begins and ends with him — the story follows a hot potato format, character A meeting character B who we then follow until they mention character C who takes over the narrative, and so forth. The style is somewhat akin to that used by George R.R. Martin in his Song of Ice and Fire, each chapter being told from the point of view of one of a pool of characters. However, this being a single volume of slightly over 300 pages, we’re given the opportunity to know the characters in far less well-rounded detail than in Martin’s books. Rather, like a Cinderella or a Hansel, we come to know the characters through the conflicts and concerns they embody.
Thus we have Brenden Vetch, the apolitical innocent with an affinity for nature; he unknowingly becomes a focus of conflict within the overly political, overly controlled city of Kelior. The other focus is the entertainer and illusionist (and perhaps, practitioner of outlawed magic) Tyramin and his beautiful daughter/assistant Mistral, come to Kelior for reasons unknown. The arrival of both in the city initiates a chain of fear, investigation, and discovery for the other characters: Yar, the restless teacher who sees in Brenden an echo of his younger self; his lover Ceta, torn between care for Yar and her ties to the Kingdom; Ceta’s cousin Valoren, graduate of the magic school and now magical advisor to King Galin; the Princess Sulys, caught between an arranged marriage to Valoren and her own secret knowledge that seems linked to Tyramin; the watch captain Arneth, forced to choose between law and love in his investigation of Tyramin and Mistral. Unlike many fantasy books there is no “evil” here to be overcome; fear due to ignorance, complacency and misguided good intentions are the enemy. They are all the more terrifying and inexorable because we can recognize them as primal forces within ourselves.
“Finally, he asked me what I wanted as a reward. I told him why I had come to Kelior, and he handed me back to the wizards, who took me in.”
Yar paused, felt the students’ intent, expectant minds wanting something more, a moral to the story, the satisfaction of virtue rewarded. He gave them what he had.
“And here I have been ever since.”
The settings of the book, too, have the simple, primal force of fairy tale. No attempt is made to situate the Kingdom of Numis in time or space; its history as we know it begins and ends with Od’s involvement. In the Kingdom are Kelior, the civilized and socialized City, and the surrounding countryside, the Natural, the Untamed and Unknown. Within the City are the Castle, the seat of authority; the School, where knowledge and rules are transmitted (and which lies in the shadow of the Castle); the House (only one is ever described), a place of sanctuary and intimacy; and the Twilight Quarter, the walled-off forbidden area of the city that comes alive only at night, full of delightful entertainments and — via commerce symbolized by port and warehouse — repository of all outside ideas.
The characters mix and mingle in these settings, numerous separate stories and goals entwining by the end into a single purpose. As with any fairy tale, there is a moral to Od Magic, involving the dangers of valuing something too much for utilitarian reasons and not enough for what it is in itself. There is some uneasiness in the story here — anyone not a believer will likely remain unconvinced, and anyone already a believer may at times find some of the simplified characterizations to be preaching too loudly to the choir. McKillip’s lovely prose always saves the day in such instances, however. The words carry us along and remind us that this is a fairy tale; although the characters are at times not three-dimensional enough to be recognizable as real people, they do in fairy tale fashion represent true-to-life emotions and points of view. And Od Magic never aims to be real, only to be true.
Only at the end of the book does this aim seem to falter somewhat: on the surface at least, the ending shares more with a light-hearted Disney adaptation of a fairy tale than the sort of tales originally collected by the Brothers Grimm or penned by Hans Christian Andersen. And yet, a second look (and a look inward) show an ending with a good number of complexities. Words do become inadequate at the end, and what is unsaid becomes as important as what is said. How many people find what they set out looking for by story’s end? How many get what they deserve? How much is truly resolved? Against the popular endings of the day — “people get what they deserve” and “bad things can happen to normal people” — McKillip here posits a third ending. To the extent that Od Magic is able to answer its question, “what does magic do when it is freed?,” a large part of the answer seems to be that being open to the possibilities of magic, of delight and wonder, is to be open to the possibility — although by no means the certainty — of forgiveness, grace and a second chance.
Those who are open to such an ending in all its glorious oddity and magic, those who are willing to do the work, will likely enjoy Od Magic.