Prince Ombra by Roderick MacLeish
Seeing as this is my first column, a few words of introduction are in
order. My name is Joseph J. Finn and I've signed on with Bookslut to be
the Speculative Fiction Libertine. Now, your first reaction is probably
going to be "what the bleep is speculative fiction, and who the hell is
this Finn guy to call himself a libertine?" Two good questions, only one
of which will be answered.
Speculative fiction is fiction in which an author deals in "might-have-beens" or "what may come" rather than stories grounded in normal reality. It is a broad field, encompassing everything from the science fiction of Isaac Asimov, to the fantasy works of Ursula K. LeGuin, all the way to the fantastical works of Umberto Eco.
I'll freely admit that I find myself very impatient with whiz-bang speculative fiction - the sort that is so focused on the mechanics of the world, whether it be how a warp drive works or how many times you have to spin the crystal to open the magic door, that the characters are merely cardboard cutouts spitting out lines. You can call it the Tom Clancy style of fiction, full of acronyms and mechanical details; I prefer to think of it as detail-oriented mental masturbation. The authors seem to be so caught up in how their world works that they fetishize the details, leaving little time or space for little things like plot development or character. I'm certainly not going to get into which authors are guilty of this, lest I receive 2,000 angry e-mails from Robert Jordan fans, but the Gentle Readers out there know who I'm talking about.
What we'll be looking at in this column are works that draw you into a world where we care about the characters; a world where we see things from a perspective that ordinary fiction doesn't consider. Perfect example: "Alice in Wonderland." Without taking Alice into Wonderland, Lewis Carroll would not be able to show us his fantastic satire on humanity. Which, really, is just a long way of leading into our first review (oh, can't you feel the excitement!).
Published in 1982, "Prince Ombra" (out of print for years, now available again as a trade paperback from Tor) is the story of Bentley Ellicott, to all appearances a normal eight-year-old boy in the village of Stonehaven. Your typical coastal town, Stonehaven; people live and die, they love, they hate, they squabble, they make up. It's the kind of town that H.P. Lovecraft would have used, setting a story in an abandoned house on the outskirts of town.
Growing up in this seemingly idyllic town, Bentley has only two things that make him distinct from those around him; one is his leg, crippled from birth; the other is that he is the hero of the Borrowed Heart. Bentley is the thousand-and-first incarnation of the hero that comes again and again, sent down from heaven to defend us from the depredations of Prince Ombra, the ultimate evil that is expressed in such legends as Satan and Seth. It would be unfair to relate too much of the plot, since it is such a joy to digest, but Bentley has two helpers: the first, a psychologist named Dr. Kreistein; the second, a young girl named Sally, whom everyone calls Slally because she speaks in a stream of gibberish that only Bentley can understand.
These two people are Bentley's teacher and rememberer - those who will train him and remember his deeds for future generations to reflect upon. A very nice touch, this is based on the theories of Joseph Campbell, who (despite some wacky inclinations in his personal beliefs) popularized the theories of common threads in folktales and legends. The basic theory, delineated in the classic "Hero with a Thousand Faces," is that there are common threads among all stories of the great warriors of mankind - Arthur, Susano, Hercules, Cu Chulainn and many others; they were all given great knowledge but faced many moral dilemmas before their greatest battles.
That is only the barest of explanations of Campbell's theory, of course (in fact, it's really only one of the theories in "Thousand"), but it is sufficient to put forward the basic rules that "Prince Ombra" operates under. MacLeish uses these rules to great advantage, creating a complex character in Bentley; he's an eleven-year-old-boy that has been charged with the greatest of tasks. This is well reflected in Bentley's interactions with Kreistein and Slally. Sometimes, he mistrusts them and lashes out as a child might; other times, he is as stalwart a warrior one might hope for.
The other great strength of the novel is the setting. Stonehaven is one of the great locations I've read of in a novel, full of instantly recognizable characters who have their own fears and dreams. There are several townspeople whom we come to know well in the course of the novel, particularly Charlie Feavey - a bitter man who becomes one of Bentley's greatest enemies. Still, the novel draws its greatest strength from the fact that Bentley's greatest enemy may be himself; his doubts and fears are what may spell his doom.
Wonderfully written with characters whom you'll grow to love, "Prince Ombra" is an essential read for anyone who enjoys the classics of speculative fiction.
Oh, and for the record, I enjoy Clancy novels.