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Saturday, April 29, 2006

Od Magic by Patricia A. McKillip

Patricia A. McKillip has been one of my favorite writers for roughly a quarter century. I recently was privileged to read her Od Magic (New York: Ace, 2005).

Od Magic begins with a young man, whose parents have recently died. He is an expert at healing, using plants. Od, a giantess who heals injured animals of all kinds, and a sorceress, comes to him, and tells him he needs to go to the school for wizards at the capital city, to be the gardener. (Od has been alive for several centuries, and founded the school herself.) When Brenden Vetch gets to the city, he enters the school through a door under a shoe, hung out as a shop sign. It turns out that no one else has seen this sign for 19 years, since Yar, the principal teacher of the school, entered as a student.

Going in doors that no one else can see is a symbol, and it has been used at other times, in other ways, by other authors. Jesus told his followers (John 10:1-7) that he was the only true door, and no one could enter except through him. Ged entered a school for wizards through a door that required him to give his secret name to the Master Doorkeeper in Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea books. Harry Potter and the other students bound for Hogwarts can see, and enter, a door to a train that ordinary people cannot see. Clearly, Brenden Vetch is special. But the book mostly leaves him alone, until the end. Other characters take the plot over, and there is a plot.

There is a theme, too. The theme is freedom. The school for wizards has been made subordinate to the wishes of the king. Although the king is not malevolent, the wizards are stifled, and ordinary. They don't pursue the edges of their craft. They ignore types of wizardry that haven't been approved. Yar remembers that there is more, but the pupils don't want anything taught except what is safe.

There is some murkiness in this book. As in the Hed trilogy, McKillip introduces beings and powers that aren't really described, except that they are powerful. What they are, what they want, how they operate is not explained -- it's just assumed. It turns out that Od has seen that Brenden Vetch is, potentially, one of these powers, and, incidentally, that it's time that the school for wizards becomes a less stifling place. She has sent him there to do that. It is accomplished.

What is McKillip saying? I'm not sure. Perhaps she is arguing for artistic freedom. Perhaps for freedom to explore scientifically. Perhaps she is arguing for spiritual freedom. Perhaps she has something else in mind. Perhaps she just thinks that people ought to be totally free. I'm not sure.

Od Magic is a good book. There are interesting, believable characters, quite a few of them. She writes well. The plot was such that I wanted to know what was going to happen. I recommend it to lovers of fantasy. Thanks for reading.

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