Like all of Patricia McKillip‘s books, Ombria in Shadow is a dreamy, intricate tale, made memorable by her distinctive poetic prose. Symbols, circumstances and meanings can be interpreted on any number of deeper levels, making her books ones to be savored and re-read. If you are a lover of eloquent poetry and subtle imagery, then let Ombria in Shadow be the first of McKillip’s range of stories to let you drift away on language that must have been meticulously chosen in order to create a sense of faery and dreaming.
The royal prince of Ombria is dead, leaving a child-heir, a grieving mistress and a confused bastard nephew at the mercy of Domina Pearl (‘The Black Pearl’), the regent of the city, who is seemingly immortal and has her own dark plans for the ruling of the oldest city in the world. Casting the young mistress Lydea onto the streets and poisoning the young prince Kyel into a state of deep depression is just the beginning. The bastard-son Ducon is drawn almost against his will into the designs of the noble conspirators, when all he wishes to do is attempt to fulfill his passion for drawing doorways, windowsills and other openings — searching for something in his pictures that he doesn’t understand.
Meanwhile, the mysterious sorceress Faey dwells in the shadows beneath the city, doing whatever magical task the highest bidder pays her for, along with her magical “waxling” Mag. A creature of magic is what Mag has been led to believe she is, but after accidentally swallowing a heart-spell of Faey’s, she begins to feel rather human emotions that bring her tangled into the conspiracy of the crown, with her own part to play…
Perhaps the inclusion of all these characters without a clear protagonist is a slight fault of the novel, but in a way I think that is a technique that McKillip sought to take, in the way of putting Ombria itself in the title role, with all her characters fitting together like a jig-saw puzzle in order to save it. Certainly out of everything, Ombria is her most fascinating creation. Below the sunny streets lies another Ombria, a shadow Ombria: the city’s own past. Ghosts and magic dwell there, and the entrances are through abandoned doors and shadows. It is almost as if time itself runs differently in the city — it runs not horizontally, from left to right, but vertically, with the city’s past gradually sinking downwards into the underworld (an idea helped along greatly by the imagery presented in the great underground river, lined with empty houses and its black surface lit by lamps). I was utterly intoxicated by such an idea, and the language with which it was used suited it perfectly.
As it is, I wasn’t entirely satisfied by the conclusion; it was suitably ambiguous, but still didn’t answer all my questions, especially concerning the relationship and the real nature of Faey and the Black Pearl. But nonetheless Ombria in Shadow is a wonderful read, and comes complete with another of K.Y. Craft’s beautiful title covers, which is well worth the price of any book!
What I liked: The prose was gorgeous. Much like Patricia McKillip‘s nearly perfect Winter Rose, this book is like one of those lush dreams that seems more real than reality. McKillip shows her writing “chops” off to best advantage in Ombria in Shadow.
What I didn’t like: The villain was a one-dimensional cliché, and several of the protagonists were just too Nice And Sweet for my taste. I guess the real gripe is that McKillip spent so much time on her setting that the characters suffered by comparison. And while several of her other books feature ambiguous situations where you don’t know whose side to take, it’s clear from page one of Ombria in Shadow that Domina Pearl has to go. I prefer my good and evil a little murkier and grayer.
Overall, Ombria in Shadow works as a sort of prose poem; read it for the beauty of the writing, and maybe for the interesting concept of the shadow city, but don’t expect an epic.