The city of Numis is home to the famous Od School of Magic, founded years ago by the legendary giantess Od. She’s apparently immortal, but appears only occasionally, and therefore the school lies in the hands of the king Galin and the wizard-headmaster Valoren, who demand strict obedience from its students. Any unorthodox magic is outlawed, any student that step outside the boundaries set for them are expelled. This is especially true of any student who goes wandering in the Twilight Quarter of the city: a neighborhood that comes alive only after dark, a place of wild and uncontrollable magic that the king is determined to stifle.
This is particularly true when two new faces arrive in Kelior. One in a simple gardener named Brenden Vetch, sent by Od herself to the school in order to take up a position as a new gardener. His magical skill with plants is astonishing, as well as threatening to those who can’t understand it. The second is a man called Tyramin (traveling with his daughter Mistral), a wandering magician who has gained a reputation in the city for magic tricks that go beyond the slight-of-hand expected of a mere showman. Between the two of them, the king and his administrators are worried.
Surrounding these two is a vast range of characters, each with their own opinions and agendas concerning the upheavals in the city. Arneth Pit is the restless son of a law enforcement official, instructed to keep the peace in the Twilight Quarter: it is he who is sent to investigate the newcomers and ascertain whether they are a threat to the crown or not (and falling in love with Tyramin’s daughter in the process). Yar Ayrwood is a teacher at the school, sympathetic to students who feel constrained by the laws in place to limit their powers. His lover Ceta Thiel is compiling a history on the magic of Numis, and finds several intriguing references to old magic on the mountainside which seems to be linked with the secret labyrinth under the school. Lastly, (and most importantly) is Princess Sulys, restricted and restless with her life, concealing her own magical abilities, and dismayed to find that she’s betrothed to the dour Valoren.
As with most of her stories, McKillip introduces a wide range of characters and their separate storylines, only to begin linking them together as the story progresses. As with Ombria in Shadow, there is no clear protagonist in Od Magic (the blurb concentrates on the gardener Brenden Vetch, but in fact this character is probably given the least amount of attention — in fact, McKillip seems to loose interest in him halfway through, giving us no resolution regarding his lost lover or any real reason as to why Od would send him to Numis in the first place) and the story feels a little vague as a result. Even in an ensemble cast, there should be at least one-stand out to ground the reader. Patricia McKillip is usually very good at keeping her characters distinct, but in this case, I kept getting Yar and Arneth mixed up.
As I’ve heard another reader say, this is a “mild” book. The stakes are not as high in Od Magic as it is in some of her novels: in this case it is not some evil villain to be overcome, or worlds hanging in the balance, but rather an ideology that needs adjusting. Nothing too drastic happens, making Od Magic a story that is more meandering and less intense than most of McKillip’s other novels. There are no villains — only misunderstandings. There is no life-threatening conflict — only mysteries that need to be solved to reach a greater understanding. This time around McKillip explores the tension between the untamed magic of free-spirited characters, and the conformity and restrictions imposed on them by the state, acting out of fear and misunderstanding. However, because we see so little of magic, and what we do see is so varied and unstructured, I’m not entirely sure what magic is meant to be a metaphor for (free speech? Individualism? Creativity?) or even if it is a metaphor at all. The two “rebels” in the story are a gardener and a performer — hardly instigators of any dangerous sedition, making the government look foolish for having targeted them.
But for argument’s sake, what if they had been a threat to the safety of the populace? Shouldn’t magic then have some sort of restrictions placed around it? When someone has the power to slay dragons or shape-shift, then there should be some sort of system in place to make sure such magic is not abused. Sometimes a little control (particularly self-control) is a good thing.
If this review sounds a little harsh, it is only because I’m measuring it against the excellence of Patricia McKillip’s other novels. It’s not a good place to start if you are new to McKillip, but it is lovely in its own way, particularly in McKillip’s usual mastery of poetic-prose, and the unique world that she creates, particularly in the mysterious Twilight Quarter (if I was a student from the school, I doubt I could stay away from it either!). It is not her best book, but once again I applaud Patricia McKillip for doing what seems to be lost on many fantasists: she tells a story, with a beginning, middle and end. There are no endless sequels that need to be purchased in order to get the entire picture, just a rewarding tale to be enjoyed.
In Od Magic, a street magician named Tyramin comes to the royal city of Kelior. His troupe dances through the streets, a cataract of swirling silks, twirling dancers, clever masks, brilliant jugglers, paper flowers and fireworks; everything is a beautiful performance that fades to stagecraft in morning light. I think that’s a perfect metaphor for my experience reading this book.
Patricia McKillip’s fantasy novel was published in 2005. It from the same type of world as The Bards of Bone Plain, with magic that stems from study and words, and “wild magic” that appears where it wills in the world. In the country of Numis, a strange and long-lived wizard named Od opened a wizards’ school in the capital, centuries ago. Od is a wanderer and has not been seen for a long time. Gradually, the rulers of Numis exerted more and more control over the school until the only magic taught now is hidebound and conventional. The kings of Numis fear any other magic. Into the city and the school comes Brenden Vetch, a young man from the north who was sent to Kelios by Od, to be the school’s gardener. Brenden’s arrival coincides with a visit from Tyramin, who is feared by the king as a possible “wild magician.” Brenden soon finds himself being hunted by the king’s wizard Valoren who decides that Brenden is both Tyramin and a source of wild magic. Brenden is aided by Yar, a teacher at the school. Meanwhile, the princess Sulys, still mourning the loss of her mother, is told she’ll be married off to Valoren. Sulys has never shared with her father, the king, or her brother the crown prince that she has magic herself. She does not know where to turn.
As always, I loved the magic here, and I loved McKillip’s delicate, poetic language. The magical system is somewhat like poetry, a sense of knowing something deeply and intimately, and seeing correspondences rather than a formulaic ritual or incantation. Scene after scene is filled with gentle wit and charming visuals; there are many cups of tea, swathes of fabric, twinkling lights. The conflicts are believable enough, and the characters are interesting but never felt rounded or complex to me. McKillip tried to keep them on an archetypal level and in this story that simply did not work.
It also seemed that most of the big realizations or moments happened off-stage. Ceta Thiel, Yar’s lover and Valoren’s cousin, is conflicted because she supports the royal view of magic, but she senses Yar’s frustration and is sympathetic. Ceta is studying the life of Od as it is known. She discovers a scrap of writing from Od that changes her thinking, but this happens off the page, and near the end she defies her cousin and helps Yar. Arneth Pyt, the warden of the Twilight Quarter, where much of the action takes place, meets Tyramin’s daughter while he is searching for her father. They have two or three conversations during the course of the book. By then end, they are mutually, devotedly in love, only I never saw it happen. Brenden goes to the Twilight Quarter to research a strange plant he finds in the school garden. This sets in motion the plotline about Valoren thinking he is Tyramin. The plant disappears from the story, and Brenden flees. As is usually the case with a McKillip book, Brenden finds the depths of his power, but I don’t see how. At the end of the book, it seems that Brenden has forgotten both his grief over the deaths of his parents during an outbreak of fever, and the woman he loved who left the village before he did, with no real acknowledgement of those events or how his feelings might have transmuted.
There is a labyrinth in Od Magic, one built by Od, and I didn’t understand how it worked. One student got lost in it, and Yar says this happens every year. It seems that the lost student is actually a ploy. Later Ceta and Sulys walk the labyrinth and Ceta has no difficulty popping out to the kitchen for magical supplies and snacks, and later still Yar “solves the mystery” of the labyrinth and uses it to travel a great distance. I was confused.
There is lovely dialogue and flashes of humor like the light glancing off a needle stitching through silk. Sulys, the neglected princess, causes a ruckus when she meets Ceta and they go to the labyrinth. Her father decides that she’s been abducted and mounts a city-wide search. Sulys comments that her father and brother never notice when she’s there, she didn’t think they’d notice when she’s gone. Later, when someone tells her that her father is beside himself, she says, “How dreadful. One of him is difficult enough.”
There is a truly wonderful scene at the end with Tyramin and Sulys, where Sulys shares her magic, and the plot wraps up in a satisfactory way. I certainly enjoyed Od Magic for the writing, and I have no trouble giving it three stars, but this is not one of McKillip’s major works. It’s a good book for a trip or a night in a hotel. A plus for the book, an Ace hardback that I bought used, was a sumptuous cover by Kuniko Y. Craft.