When I saw the title of Priya Sharma’s short novel Ormeshadow, I was intrigued, since I immediately spotted the orme part—which refers (as the father character in the book also explains to his son Gideon, our young protagonist) to “the Old English word for worm or dragon” (p. 10). I always like to see what contemporary authors do with such well-flogged dead horses as the ubiquitous high-fantasy, fire-breathing lizard. There have been great examples of new and relevant perspectives, such as Kazuo Ishiguro’s treatment of fantasy tropes in The Buried Giant (2015). Besides, Ormeshadow looked like a coming-of-age story in the midst of rugged coastal landscapes, teeming with folklore and a potential family curse, so of course I was intrigued. Sadly, all that this book delivered was the disillusionment of the century.
The book starts with our child protagonist Gideon being on a journey with his parents. John Belman, his father, has been dismissed by his employer—to whom he refers as “a lord” (p. 13)—over an argument about an incident that the father describes as “an insult“ to his wife Clare, which is never fully explained or described. It is very clear that, according to the father’s view, his wife had been sexually harassed and he couldn’t just take it calmly and not confront his employer about this. As a consequence, he lost his job. Now there is nothing left for the family but to travel to the village of Ormeshadow and seek refuge on the family farm, now run by John’s brother Thomas. We are introduced to Ormeshadow—and, indeed, the Orme from which it takes its name—through a story that John tells to Gideon on the journey there. It’a tale about a dragon that fell asleep on the seashore and over time got covered in grass and trees and was forgotten by most humans; eventually a village was built in the dragon-hill’s shadow and named Ormeshadow (p. 10).
Ormeshadow is John’s birthplace, but he has either been disinherited or his brother bought out his share in the family farm. Either way, for some old reason (possibly “thinking that he is better than his working-class brother”), John is not going to be received with open arms. The boy Gideon receives this first installment of the dragon’s story with a good dose of skepticism. Our own suspension of disbelief, too, is challenged by the novel’s weirdly unspecific historical setting. We are, the reader takes it, supposed to believe that this story is set in our world, but the few clues we get—like an unspecified king having visited the city of Bath (p. 11)—aren’t consistent, making it very hard to establish a setting in time. (I’ll get to the reason why this is important.) If we’re in an alternate world where dragons are more than just creatures from myth and folklore, however, why go to the trouble of giving us these clues at all? My point here is: this is really sloppy writing, and by the end of the book this would make my enjoyment as a reader impossible.
Finally the family arrives at Ormesleep Farm, where they receive a rather cold, monosyllabic welcome. Gideon’s father’s name had been carved into the kitchen table long ago, along with others, but has since been scored through, gouged out. In fact every one of the farm’s inhabitants makes it clear with every word and gesture that his family are surely not welcome and only grudgingly tolerated in return for a lot of hard work. These quite one-dimensional inhabitants consist of Gideon’s uncle Thomas, his aunt Maud (described as quite plain, and this is always mentioned in stark contrast to the character of Gideon’s mother), and cousins Charity, who is still a baby, and Samuel and Peter, who are super-simplified as mindless bullies.
From the beginning we encounter passages of seriously bad writing, some sentences being especially jarring: “[The fire] crackled and spat, angry at being newly lit” (p.18); “Watching his cousin having problems reading, Gideon […] wanted to shout out the words that ran across the page, fleeing from Samuel’s forefinger as he attempted to follow them” (p. 42). I couldn’t shake the impression that here Sharma is trying to convey reality as seen through the eyes of a child by deliberately using descriptions characterized by an animistic worldview (right after the boy has expressed doubts as to the existence of dragons), and also often using “dumbed down” and overly humanizing language and descriptions—such as a (potentially poisoned) dog having “wet herself” (p. 54). Euphemisms and baby talk of this sort are always unnecessary, even if you take into account that the protagonist is a child. Only the worst children’s books use simplified language to address their readers, and—as we shall see—this is neither a happy story of a boy protected from harsh realities nor a children’s book. Nevertheless, this process of dumbing-down its protagonist happens in still more overt ways all the time.
From the beginning, all that Gideon encounters on Ormesleep Farm is hostility and some minimal dialogue in clipped sentences. Everywhere—on the farm, in the village, at school—Gideon is treated as a stranger who doesn’t belong, and who is probably considering himself too good for his new surroundings (which, to be fair, is partly justified by Gideon’s behaviour and his often reiterated dreams of leaving all of this behind and becoming a scholar like his father). Nobody talks to him; children just stare (p. 23). The story moves in jagged leaps, set years apart. These episodes are obviously meant as vignettes that illustrate key moments in Gideon’s childhood and adolescence. I’m not sure that this works, because a lot of them are just scenes of casual violence, bullying, and rejection that don’t really contribute much after a while, and the flow of the story is interrupted by the gaps. In a book this short (just 162 pages), I’d rather have a continuous flow of narrative than a grimdark slideshow.
In one of the vignettes, Gideon’s mother, who is a skillful seamstress, makes a dress for aunt Maud, which is described as follows: “The shape of the dress could not be faulted, but the shade was misjudged. It made ashes of [Maud’s] complexion and bleached the colour from her eyes” (p. 43). Thomas makes a dismissive remark about it, and she never wears the dress again. Clare on the other hand wears her pretty dresses all the time and, while not being overtly sexualized in the narrative, is always mentioned as being very beautiful and basically turning the heads of all the men in the village. Later, Gideon overhears a quarrel between his parents, which he can never understand or contextualize, not even years and years later—even though the words he is overhearing are very straightforward. Clare is accusing her husband of not loving her enough, or not giving her what she wants. “And it’s in Thomas?” he asks her (p. 66). In return, she tells him that she wants “the sort of love you’d kill for. Die for” (p. 66)—which is very immature and seems like an unlikely thing for an urban character stranded in a bleak and hostile rural environment to say, and an even more unlikely thing to say about Thomas, who is portrayed as such a brute. Even worse, from that moment on (at the very latest), a shadow is thrown over the character of Clare and all her motivations. The reader is led to wondering whether she deliberately chose that unflattering colour for her sister-in-law’s dress, and what’s really behind that “insult” she suffered from her husband’s former employer. This sort of characterization is very much not cool. All of Clare’s actions seem to be motivated by intra-gender competition and female misogyny: women are presented as competitors over men’s affection, rather than siding with each other in solidarity, foregrounding commonalities instead of differences, especially in a comparative sense. I wish I could say that the author is doing this deliberately in order to make us rethink the story in feminist terms, but there are no signs she’s doing so.
Anyway. In order to show Clare that he loves her with “a love that you’d kill for / die for,” John goes and kills himself by leaping off the Orme. Sigh. Oh yes: first he takes off his wedding ring and dramatically leaves it on the table, where his son finds it and pockets it. The only moments of escapism that Gideon has been offered to this point have been when his father told him stories of the Orme, the sleeping dragon-princess that forms the hillside near the farm, and of his ancestor Gideon Bellamans (p. 27), who made a pact with the dragon and promised to keep her safe and to be there when she wakes up (p. 31). After his father’s death, Gideon inherits two things: a carved chair that apparently functions as a secret map of the Orme, and “the piece of land that is called the Orme” itself (p. 80), alongside any items found there. This will later include his father’s wedding ring, which Gideon sacrifices to the Orme by throwing it inside her “ear,” a small cave he likes to hide in—just like in the fairy tale of "The Fish and the Ring."
In the wake of his father’s death, Gideon’s walks on the Orme, slipping into a narrow cave he believes to be the sleeping dragon’s ear and telling it his secrets and worries, and his reminiscences of his father’s Orme stories, form a recurring theme of escapism that more or less hold the grimdark vignettes together. Especially in a time that foregrounds such things as—however much I abhor the term—“hopepunk,” I really don’t think we need any more protagonists who seek refuge from (however one-dimensional) harsh realities by hiding in escapist fantasies, rather than in finding ways to overcome them. I’d prefer that the boy remained stubborn and very much himself in the face of adversity (Hello? Even Jane Eyre could do that in 1847!), or found any sort of real-life friend, person or animal, with whom to conspire, rather than talking to himself in a cave, telling himself that it’s a dragon’s ear canal, while being haunted by visions of his dead father returning from the dead to blame his only son for not saving him (p. 94).
But the grimdark vignettes grind on. When he’s old enough to fancy girls (sigh, just your usual run-of-the-mill heteronormativity here as well), Gideon’s cousins taunt him because he quite obviously has a crush on a village girl with a bad reputation—“You like her, don’t you? Of all the girls to be sweet on, you picked Easy Lizzy!” (p. 102) (Lizzy has “birthed a dead baby out of wedlock” and is clearly being sexually harassed by several of the villagers [p. 99]). Maybe as a result of this continued bullying, Gideon refuses to accept a kiss from the girl he likes, even though he clearly wants to kiss her (and is imagining a lot more):
“No, Eliza.” […] You are worth far more. Don’t hold yourself so cheaply.”
“But I am cheap, Gideon, or didn’t you know?” (p. 101)
It’s very much not helping the portrayal of female characters that in the meantime, as a direct reaction to her sister-in-law’s new pregnancy, Gideon’s mother Clare starts up a correspondence with Mr. Hipps, the solicitor from Bath who had helped her with her husband’s funeral, and he ends up paying her a visit and proposing to her:
“I’ve yet to accept, Thomas.” Clare glided to Mr. Hipps’s side. “Surely you can see the sense in my considering his proposal. After all”—she bowed her head —“with the baby coming I can’t imagine myself wanted here.” (p. 116)
All of this makes Gideon remember his father’s stories about the Orme and about fictional constellations, one of them being the Treacherous Brother. “He was the most reviled of all the dragons. He deceived his noble brother and drove him to his death. He took his brother’s crown, the queen, and cast his nephews into servitude, so he alone could reign and no one else” (p. 119). These flashbacks imply that John knew everything about his wife’s affair with his brother, only ever blamed Thomas, never Clare, and was already planning his suicide. Meanwhile, events start to speed up and intensify when Gideon more or less accidentally witnesses a sexual encounter between his mother and his uncle and listens to their conversation (I told you that this wasn’t a children’s book):
“Why did you want Hipps?”
“You know I don’t want him. It was all for you. To make you jealous.”
“You’re mine to do with as I please.”
“Sshh,” she giggled, a sound foreign to Gideon.
“Maud’ll hear you. She’ll sleep lightly now the baby’s here.” (pp. 142–3)
All this is said while they are having sex, and Thomas is pulling Clare’s hair and objectifying her, and all signs point to her enjoyment of this. Gideon leaves when Thomas asks, “Are you glad [John] caught us?” (p. 143), which had been so very obvious all along, just like their affair, just like Clare’s scheming, and I just can’t get over all of the misogynist implications. And again, while this scene makes it very clear that this is not a YA book, why do we have to be shown—and then told again—what we have known all along?! I hate it when writers underestimate their audience, and/but I’ve never read anything that took that this far.
Gideon runs away, to his secret hiding place, to beg the dragon to take him away. In a key moment, an old sailor makes a prophecy, reading Gideon’s palm (“This is just another kind of map. A map of you.” p. 128). He tells Gideon that he doesn’t belong in the village, that he strives for a higher life, a life of learning (duh!). He tells him he sees change. “Change so monumental it’ll be as if Ormeshadow never existed” (p. 129). Soon, the story switches back to the dad-story format, recalling its very beginning. “There’s a legend that there was once a mighty dragon that flew over the bay and swooped down to cool herself in the sea” (p. 145). It’s the story of the Orme, sleeping for hundreds of years, until a sad boy wakes her up. At this point, the ripples sent out by the stirring dragon can still be read as an earthquake in the real world. Then the “dragon” takes to the sky:
“The Orme crouched, her claws scoring the ground for purchase. Then she sprang up into the sky, all grace and fury.” (p. 147)
The whole hillside explodes, seemingly without any reason apart from the one we get from the dad story: the dragon waking up, scorching the village, then leaving. Gideon miraculously survives and is rescued from the sea by the old sailor, who claims he had only took his boat out because the Lord told him so (p. 154). After some more bad writing—“The hallowed ground of Ormeshadow church had been subject to the same indignity as the rest of the village, so the deceased were carried to St. Barnabas, in the valley, for burial” (p. 156)—Gideon is told that a vast treasure has been unearthed from where the hillside used to be, and that it’s all his now. Gideon rejects all of the treasure save one thing: his father’s wedding ring, now much dented, that has reappeared among the riches (p. 160). The solicitor who turns up to help him decide what to do with the rest of his life, and who reassures him that all he wants is to give him a home, is, of course, Mr. Hipps, who is accepted by Gideon as his new guardian, and the story ends with Gideon starting to tell his father’s Orme stories to his new parent-figure.
Super puke-worthy. Also, what did I say about flogged dead horses? This doesn’t only apply to dragons. 2020 really needs some different stories, doesn’t it? And they aren’t even hard to find.
This book could have been marginally saved by a clear setting in time that includes references to, for example, the First World War, in order to make sense of the dragon as a metaphor, of the nature of the big explosion, and to provide readers with a chance to read this whole story in a political and non- or even anti-escapist way. Even in the tiniest villages, people would have been aware of a coming war and would have discussed it, and these discussions would not have bypassed the teenagers. (Never underestimate teenagers!) But sadly, we’re not even getting consistent historical clues, and nobody ever mentions any war, or bombs, or makes any other attempt to give a reasonable context to the whole disappearance of a big hill and concomitant blotting out of a village and all of its inhabitants, so any interpretation of the giant explosion as a stray bomb dropped on a seaside village is only wishful thinking on the reader’s part in order to give this badly told story another layer.
As it is, Ormeshadow is worse that apolitical: it is grimdark for no reason, escapist without offering any other escape than that given by a lumpen deus ex machina, ending with an overdose of poetic justice, and, as if this wasn’t enough, is antifeminist to the max. It’s painful to have spent reading-time on this book. Today we have so many better examples of SFF—for young readers and otherwise—which show us that everything is political, and that young people can be an active part in change for the better. This is what we need as readers, especially in situations where we worry about climate change, about pandemics, about equal rights for everyone—not just in a crisis but in a far more sustained and structural way, about whether our planet is doomed or whether we can turn things back around, at least for a while. The past cannot be blotted out. But the present can be changed, and there is no wishful thinking and no deus ex machina to do it for us. Young people like Greta Thunberg (and thankfully many others!) are showing us that if anyone is naïve or dumbed-down or doesn’t grok the facts, it’s adults in power much more than them.
So do me a favour and read something else, something empowering. It isn’t hard to find.