Yoknapatawpha Crossing

Prince Ombra

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Okay, I need to tell you something: I’m a huge dork. That’s my justification for spending a couple of weeks reading a kind of cheesy, kind of fantasy book about a kid who heroically fights off the One Great Evil of the cosmos. What prompted me to pick up an obscure fantasy book from the early 80s? Read on, friend. Read on.

The first mention I heard of this book was in an article on Bookslut, which is the internet’s premier librarian pornography website. Really. Anyhow, one of their contributors wrote an article on Speculative Fiction (which is apparently the new catch-all genre title that eliminates the problem of where to file stuff like the Book of the New Sun. Is it fantasy? Is it science fiction? Oh god, I can’t tell!!) They particularly recommended a book titled Prince Ombra, written in 1982 by Roderick MacLeish, who appears to be the poster boy for obscure authors. I had just finished reading Stoppard‘s play The Invention of Love, which is excellent but difficult to get your head around, like most of his work, and was in the mood for something a little easier to read. Incredibly, the college library actually had a copy of Prince Ombra, so I was off!

After finishing the book, I can say this: it was interesting, but not so much that I would go through it again. The basic premise is the idea of the recurring hero (all the great legends of the past, Arthur, Gilgamesh, Susano, etc., are about different incarnations of the one eternal hero), and this time the hero has recurred in the person of a small boy with a crippled leg. The book is interesting in that, while it ostensibly takes its cue from such epic legends of the past, the story related here is very personal and anything but epic.

The article at Bookslut, and also the comments about the book on Amazon, praise the book particularly for its strong, believable characterizations and its well-developed setting. In fact, this is where I view the book as failing. It’s true that there’s strong sense of setting and that the characters behave realistically, but the way in which they’re depicted is so blunt and clumsy that it kills any sense of believability. Where other authors will define a character by their actions and interactions, MacLeish just comes right out and says it. “Bob was a happy guy, but he was haunted by the death of his mother so many years ago…” Which wouldn’t be so bad occasionally, but this is essentially the only way we get any characterization at all in the novel. Although in a sense it’s necessary, since most of the characters are being influenced by an evil force at some point in the story, so the opportunity for demonstrating their true nature through action is somewhat limited. But anyhow.

The heavy-handed treatment of characters in the novel reflects a larger problem of the book: the writing overall can be fairly uneven. There are places where MacLeish is able to evoke a mood or scene beautifully, and there are other places where the prose is completely flat. Although the book is not for children and deals with fairly mature themes, there are places where he seems to be addressing an audience of younger people.

The book strikes me as the kind of thing that one might read and enjoy as a young adult, and carry fond memories of it into later life. Despite its undeniable charm and some particularly strong writing in places, the novel as a whole is more interesting than entertaining, and I found myself having to forgive it too much.

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Written by Daniel Grady

April 11, 2005 at 21:54

Posted in Books

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