Title: Od Magic
Author: Patricia A. McKillip
Published: 2005
Genre: Fiction > Fantasy > Mythopoeic
Rating: ★★★★


Brenden Vetch has a gift that connects him to the agricultural world, nurturing gardens to flourish and instinctively knowing the healing properties each plant and herb has to offer. Receiving a personal invitation from the wizard Od to become a gardener for her school in the great city of Kelior, he finds a home among every potential wizard who must be trained to serve the Kingdom of Numis. But unknown to the reigning monarchy is the power possessed by the school’s new gardener-a power that even Brenden isn’t fully aware of, and which is the true reason Od recruited him.

The reclamation of natural innocence in Patricia A. McKillip’s novel of magic and myth.

The publisher’s synopsis for Od Magic is a little misleading since the book is not primarily about the character mentioned in the description. While his circumstance is the hinge around which the whole story revolves, the focus for most of the narrative is on other individuals. Any major disappointment this might cause is generally banished by how well McKillip weaves her tale, as well as the quality of gentle maturity imbuing her prose (and characters) that warmly blankets the reader.

Meaning, as I See It

This is quite a little jewel of a book. It opens with a lovely chapter describing sorrow that feels age-old, as if it were rooted deep into the world itself. There’s a melodious tone and fairytale ambiance in the telling, especially in those few chapters that do feature the gardener from the description. Gardening is the ostensible leitmotif for the narrative, but this is used to segue into the overarching thrust of the story, which essentially amounts to recapturing and affirming that quality of innocence that leads to a sense of wonder for the world, especially in the face of man’s taint. That taint comes from the limitations placed on the essences of things, when that essence is encapsulated into language, i.e. words, the context for knowledge, and the system of rules that arises after that initial vocalisation of the idea, which is never as pure and clear as the unarticulated idea itself. In a broader and more immediately superficial sense, this can be extended out to the philosophical divide between nature and science—i.e. the more advanced a society, especially with respect to systemisation in all things and the formalisation of knowledge, the more room for corruption, where that corruption is a remove from the psychological purity that nature represents.

The Basic Premise

This is all a roundabout way of explaining what is the heart of the book, but the basic plot deals with a kingdom and a school of wizardry that have had a symbiotic relationship over centuries, but where that relationship has become corrupt due to the kingdom reigning over what can and can’t be taught in an authoritative effort to control knowledge and power. Enter a gardener sent by a Gandalf-like wizard (in essence and role, not in imagery) to take an horticulturalist’s position at her school, and this provides the impetus for a shift in perception with regards to the status quo. The status quo is, in part, represented by the utilisation of magic in some philosophic sense, where magic is framed as a meta-level awareness that taps into the platonic ideal representation of nature.

Some Characters

While the gardener is in a large sense the thread that binds the story together, much of the focus is on a cast of generally appealing characters who approach each of their problems, conundrums, and dilemmas with a measure of prudence or judicious thought. This especially applies to the young princess Sulys who, in the hands of a less skilled writer, might have allowed the book to devolve into generic ‘young-adult’ conventions. Instead, she approaches her constraints and limitations with maturity, without childish angst or rebellion or wilfully attempting to showcase a stupid kind of independence so common in the genre. She takes time to understand her circumstance, and think through the nuances of her dilemma with admirable mental clarity, especially with respect to her betrothed Valoren—in recognising what needs to be made clear between them if there is even the slightest possibility of an amicable relationship.

Even Valoren, the king’s primary wizard, isn’t unappealing or unsympathetic despite his antagonistic role. His narrow-mindedness springs from a strict adherence to duty—to king and kingdom—and to preexisting laws that have corrupted the goal or symbiotic relationship that is supposed to exist between the Wizard’s School and the Kingdom of Numis. The consequence of this corruption has seeped into his persona, making him cold and distant, less prone to human warmth, unimaginative with respect to the wonder of magic, and even overly fearful of power not under the control of the law’s mandate.

In contrast to Valoren’s ossified sense of wonder, ironically at an early age, the older wizard Yar represents the process of moving away from stricture-bound dogma. Possibly the most interesting character of the narrative, this entire story could have centred around him without losing any force. There is something very appealing in the story about finally re-capturing, slightly later in life although still young (c. late 30’s–early 40’s), an innocence lost after having gone through the strict conditioning of the school that vitiated an innate curiosity to learn new things. Much of his story is coupled with that of his lover Ceta, an historian of the kingdom, who, despite uncertainty in her character and motivations framed for the reader, has an innate, subtle maturity that allows her to shift her perception of the world: the extant status quo and iniquitous balance of power in the kingdom with respect to magic that has proved to be a net negative.

And then there’s Brendan Vetch, the gardener, the fulcrum around which it all revolves despite the paucity of screen-time he’s given. My initial attraction to the book was based on the thematic description of gardening and horticulture mixed up with magic. It’s an unusual theme, and I’m often drawn to rural- and frontier-type stories that involve farming or any kind of gardening—all the toil associated with bringing forth life and the lessons and satisfactions that come with it. The expectation was that through his growing understanding of nature—a self-discovery through magic—it would be possible to follow the psychological changes in him and some sort of self-actualisation would occur, where his acute sorrow would give way to an assured sense of identity and self-worth, and perhaps even a kind of numinous love. While some of this does occur, it is unfortunately in curtailed form, and Brendan is in a large sense the impetus to weave a story involving other characters—a story of which he is an important part, but smaller than I would have wished. Still, those few chapters focusing on Brendan are McKillip’s true displays of bravura with the pen.

Final Thoughts

To re-iterate, this is a very gentle story, and while it rushes somewhat with its dénouement, it does manage to provide closure. What McKillip does so well in Od Magic is that she strips away any au courant assumptions often implemented in garishly conspicuous attempts to make complicated and nuanced points by artificial, i.e. forced, means. Instead, she concentrates on essentials in the same way a fairytale might, where layers of meaning could arise naturally in a series of metaphors. What’s also admirable is McKillip’s treatment of magic as something atavistic, inexplicable, ancient, and beyond the rules, wording or the general ken of man—this is made most clear in those sections concerning the gardener, and it’s something I’ve seen few authors do well (one exception being the excellent Robert Holdstock). There’s also no better adjective than “gentle” to describe McKillip’s prose. The writing feels almost lush at times, yet it is unaffected and elegant—there’s a light, effortless touch to it that seamlessly connects one strand with another to give it all a unified impression. If this is typical of the author, then she’s gained a new fan. Recommended.

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