[button color=”black” size=”big” link=”http://affiliates.abebooks.com/c/99844/77798/2029?u=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.abebooks.com%2Fservlet%2FSearchResults%3Fisbn%3D9780441013340″ target=”blank” ]Purchase here[/button]
I really must be more careful about how I throw around words like “best” and “favorite.” But from a fairly early chapter in this book, I was already thinking about using them in this review. Let’s call it the best book I have read since the last book I anointed “best of the year so far.” If you’re a mature Harry Potter fan, looking out for something similar, yet ready to sink your teeth into heavier and headier fare, I think you’ll be equally pleased. For here is a story about a school of magic — but one in an altogether original fantasy world, flavored with exotic spices and tinged with Patricia McKillip’s unique style of poetic prose.
How can I begin to summarize this tale? It’s got an awful lot going on. But I suppose your first question will be why the first word of the title is spelled with only one d. That’s because “Od” is the name of a wizard, a female wizard, who started the school of magic in Kelior, the capital city of the kingdom of Numis. Since Od saved Numis from being overthrown in battle, the king permitted her to open her school in the shadow of his palace, and under royal protection. Hundreds of years later, the practice of magic in Numis has become so closely tied to the throne that only magic done in service of the king, and under the guidance of his royal wizards, is allowed.
Problem No. 1: Od is still alive and moving around the country, surrounded by animals she has helped and healed. No one sees her for years at a time. The last person to glimpse her was a young wizard named Yar, 19 years ago, just after he had saved the city from another dire threat. Yar was on his way to study at Od’s school when he spotted a monster attacking the city, and stopped it using powers he didn’t know he had. His reward (from Od) was to enter her school through the elusive “door under the shoe,” through the abandoned cobbler’s shop where the school was first started. Yar’s reward from the king was to have all magical initiative, curiosity, and creativity trained out of him, and to be kept at the school as a teacher so that the king’s wizards could keep an eye on him.
Problem No. 2: Brendan Vetch, the school’s new gardener, has amazing powers even he doesn’t know about. The first person since Yar to see Od and to find the door under the shoe, Brendan just wants to talk to plants. He doesn’t realize that the weight of loneliness and grief inside him is actually a huge source of power. Doesn’t realize, that is, until a fire breaks out, and Brendan unthinkingly uses that power to stop it. His reward is to become an outlaw, hunted by the king’s men as a threat to the royal monopoly on magic.
Problem No. 3: Tyramin, a mysterious master of illusion, sweeps into town with a troupe of dancers and jugglers, enchanting the senses of the citizens with a display of swirling silks, sparks, flames, flights of birds, and showers of flowers. Some say he uses real magical power to pull off his illusions. If so, then he too is committing a crime against the king. But when one of the top police officers in the city goes to investigate Tyramin’s powers, he falls under the spell of the magician’s daughter.
Problem No. 4: The king’s daughter Sulys has been learning her great-grandmother’s brand of “little magics” from a faraway country. How will she keep this a secret when she is supposed to marry Valoren, the king’s chief magical adviser? And how can she break this secret to her father and her husband-to-be when they are always too busy to hear a word she says? Sulys tries to get their attention, but as bad luck would have it, the king and his counselors are in an uproar over Tyramin and Brendan — who they think have abducted her.
Problem No. 5: Do we really need another problem to keep this story moving at a frantic pace? Maybe not, but we get one anyway, when a lady doing research for a biography of Od stumbles across some disturbing clues about the powerful magical beings that live in the northern mountains, within the borders of Numis but outside the king’s control. Are they a threat that must be destroyed, or an opportunity for discovery and wonder? This will become the burning question as Brendan, Yar, and Valoren converge on them in a race to determine what future magic will have in the kingdom of Numis.
Magic, mystery, a state crisis, romantic complications, and a series of perfectly-timed misunderstandings combine to make all these problems as tricky as they can be, all at the same time. The city of Kelior fills up with policemen, wizards, and soldiers serving conflicting agendas, searching for people who aren’t missing, turning innocent people into desperate fugitives. Lovers find their loyalties tested. Students, teachers, rulers, and subjects find their roles reversed. And all of it happens amid the glittering, perfumed glory of McKillip’s prose.
For the sake of full disclosure, I’m putting out an Occult Content Advisory on this book. At least some of the magic in it seems to come from a world outside or before ours, inhabited by indescribable beings whose thoughts exist beyond language. Some of the magic involves talking to plants and animals, and listening to what they say back. There is a bit of divination in it, and the character of Od resembles the holy figures of certain religious traditions as she slips into and out of history, sometimes in disguise.
But as I say all this, I know too well that it will increase more people’s interest in the book than otherwise. And that’s all right. For, though I distrust some of the spiritual implications of this book, I enjoyed it for its value as art and entertainment. In fact, I enjoyed it enough to deem it one of the best handful of books I have read this year. That’s odd magic indeed!