Treasure in her belly

Great Orme’s Head in the 19th century

Ormeshadow
by Priya Sharma.
Tom Doherty Associates / Tor.com, 2019.

“You must be sad to be here alone.” Gideon was about to say, But I’m not alone, but then he understood.

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A headland jutting out into the Irish Sea. A tramway for tourists leading up and back down to Llandudno. Kashmiri goats roaming the headland and invading the town. Bronze Age copper mines worked for nigh on four millennia.

This is the Great Orme, named by the Vikings for the worm or sea serpent they imagined the promontory resembling. For the visitor such as myself the essence of natural beauty, its breath the stuff of history, mystery and legend.

Then, not to be confused with Great Orme, there’s Priya Sharma’s Orme, a sea-girt headland with the feel of being a part of northwest England; no goats, just sheep; a farm called Ormesleep; and a close-knit community of dispersed settlements set in a landscape saturated with legends of dragons and a hidden hoard of treasure. All is set for a tale of Gothic sensibilities and self-imposed solitude, set in what feels like the Regency period (though we’re never explicitly told so).

© C A Lovegrove

Young Gideon Belman, a sheltered lad from Bath, is suddenly pitched into the hard sheep farming life. His father has resigned as secretary to a scholar and returned to the ancestral home where his resentful brother and family still work. The reason for the sudden change isn’t immediately spelled out to him, but it seems to involve a disagreement between his parents.

At Ormesleep Gideon is consistently bullied despite trying his best to fit in with the demands of farming. The background of continuous family tensions is brightened only by the tales his father relates to him of the last dragon of Orme, of how Gideon is named after an ancestor who befriended the dragon, and of how it is lying sleeping under the Orme. Then suddenly there is a bombshell moment and Gideon is left alone, estranged even from his mother.

Ormeshadow is a beautifully written novella in the Gothic tradition while still largely steering clear of common fantasy tropes, principally by the author’s commitment to a form of realistic historical fiction. We can well understand how a sensitive bookish lad would struggle to be accepted in a society that didn’t prize learning, making a virtue only of agrarian work and basic pleasures. So although Gideon works hard to be accepted for actually fulfilling his allocated tasks well he is only despised.

I’ve seen commentaries that compare Priya Sharma’s writing in Ormeshadow to Thomas Hardy’s, or even to the Brontës’, but the most apt parallel is to Ursula Le Guin: the author brings to the novella Le Guin’s exquisite balance of a very human story with an understated fantasy element which transcends banal expectations of wizardry familiar from so much genre fiction.

To all that Sharma adds evocative descriptions of nature, of farm work, of extremes of human emotions. There’s violence, there’s vindictiveness, there’s infidelity and suicide, there’s rejection and sudden death. Above all, Sharma knows of the power of showing over telling, whether through extended dialogue, straight reportage, or her limited but carefully curated use of adjectives and adverbs.

Dragon, Miskin Manor Hotel © C A Lovegrove

Then there are the echoes. The passages mentioning dragons are left hovering in the air – for example, to Gideon’s “Dragons aren’t real,” his father replies, “Are you sure?” – so at the end we are left to believe what we fancy. There are also subtle but unspoken hints of Hamlet, of folktales involving shepherds stumbling on sleeping warriors or underground treasures, and even of the Ragnarök of Norse myth. Meanwhile, I was drawn into the characters quite quickly, from the innocent Gideon to his parents with their unspoken secrets and his wolfishly cruel uncle and his bullying cousins.

This then is a powerful debut novella, which seems to have emerged after the author honed her craft with a successful run of short stories; and the narrative skipping several years at a time increases tensions more effectively than any padding out in a longer novel. Sexual secrets, an unhealthy greed, and an ancestral destiny all give Ormeshadow an unsettled – even treacherous – atmosphere, rather like shadows thrown on a landscape lit by a waxing moon.

Such an atmosphere can only serve to accentuate Gideon’s loneliness: can the promise of a fabled treasure in the belly of a dragon really dispel the sense of abandonment that Gideon feels?


Readers Imbibing Peril features mystery, suspense, thriller, horror, dark fantasy, supernatural, and Gothic fiction throughout September and October

6 thoughts on “Treasure in her belly

    1. Do look her up, Mallika, she has also published a collection of short stories called Fabulous Beasts which seem to have been well received. I don’t know much else about her except that she hails from northwest England.

      Liked by 1 person

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