We end this Advent Calendar with my thoughts on Priya Sharma’s novella Ormeshadow. It won the 2019 Shirley Jackson Novella Award and the 2020 British Fantasy Society Best Novella Award, so you don’t need me to tell you how good it is, but I’m going to anyway.
Having fallen out with his employer, John Belman, wife Clare and son Gideon must leave Bath and return to family homestead Ormesleep Farm. Though technically John is part owner of the farm, it’s been worked all these years by brother Thomas and his wife Maud. The two men are entirely different in character, John having embraced learning, while Thomas worked the land, and there is some resentment, at least on Thomas’ part. There is also friction between Gideon and his cousins Samuel and Peter. John tells Gideon stories of the land mass known as the Orme, that according to family legend it is a sleeping dragon and holds a vast treasure. The stage is set for tragedy and triumph, but it is a weakness of the flesh that sets the machinery in motion.
Written with a command of language that makes each passage seem as music to the ear, this was a thoroughly engrossing story, one that juxtaposes myth and reality, contrasting the life of the mind and the life of muscle and sinew. There’s a fairy tale feel to it all, and yet it remains harshly realistic, dealing with family issues as deftly as it touches on the mythic elements. Sharma’s depictions of life on the farm are gritty and real, often bloody, but with the joys of such a lifestyle also hinted at, the sense of being in touch with nature and contributing to her bounty. The rivalry between John and Thomas is perfectly characterised, the one seeming to have and then lose it all, the other always coming second and now with a chance to steal the things his brother valued so much.
In the back story there’s a faint echo of Lucius Shepard’s Dragon Griaule stories, but even more so there’s an almost Dickensian feel to parts of the narrative and a very Dickensian character in the figure of the solicitor Mr. Hipps. Through the eyes of viewpoint character Gideon, an orphan in all but name, we experience the trials and tribulations of young love, of growing up and being abandoned by those you most looked up to, of losing everything that you thought you could depend on and getting thrown back on your own resources, scant though they be. It’s a coming of age tale, a rite of passage into adulthood. The fantastic elements to the story, such as they are, take place mostly in the margins, and could quite easily be fabulist only in nature or a product of Gideon’s confusion, but that ambiguity only makes them all the stronger and more effective.
Priya Sharma has produced a wonderful novella, one that touches on much that is important in life and makes it shine. I loved it.