Ombria in Shadow
By: Patricia A. McKillip
Ombria is a place heaped with history — and secrets. There is a buried city beneath it inhabited by ghosts, accessible only through magical passages and long-forgotten doorways. When the Prince of Ombria dies suddenly, his wicked great-aunt Domina Pearl seizes power by becoming regent to the prince’s young son, Kyel. Minutes after the prince’s death, Domina kicks Lydea, the prince’s longtime mistress, out into the streets to die. But she is saved by a strange girl named Mag, a supposed waxling created by a powerful sorceress who lives underneath the city. With the help of Mag and the prince’s bastard nephew, a strange, silver-eyed man obsessed with drawing, Lydea tries to save Kyel and somehow defeat Domina.
My first McKillip novel! I’ve seen her books in the fantasy section but I never thought to check her books out until now =) May contain some spoilers ahead!
What really struck me about this novel was the setting. Ombria feels like a familiar place yet its history and development is mysterious. The concept of an underground city and a shadow city mirroring Ombria was an interesting touch, rendering the setting as a unique one in the fantasy setting. It also makes the whole place feel rather fragile and dream-like with its problems threatening to tear the place apart at any given moment. Unlike a lot of fantasy novels, trilogies and series out there at the moment, McKillip manages to put just enough information about the society of Ombria without going into the minute details, leaving the reader with enough to draw his or her imagination of the setting.
The story itself is an interesting one, more to do with political intrigue and sorcery than swords and sorcery. The conspiring and politiking is not heavy or anything but just enough that it leaves the reader intrigued and wondering how things are going to turn out. Going through the story felt like a labyrinth at times, fragile and mysterious like the world it’s set in. The main antagonist is Domina Pearl (whose motives are never really fleshed out beyond what the reader gets) but other courtiers to make the occasional appearance to make things difficult for Ducon along the way. Nonetheless the story reaches quite a quick-paced and intriguing climax, its resolution pretty satisfying.
The characters that populate this story were interesting in their own way, some moreso than others. Ducon was quite a fascinating figure: a bastard son who doesn’t want anything to do with the court but to roam around town and sketch. He also serves as a good older brother figure to the young Kyel, now the prince of Ombria following his father’s death. His abilities and the mystery of his parentage really expanded his character. The same goes for the character of Mag, whose mysterious origins also makes her character very interesting. Lydea was a sympathetic character but unlike the other two, you don’t know much about the character beyond her drive to protect Kyel at all costs and the life she lost when the previous prince died. It’s a pity because her move from a somewhat member of court back to commoner is an extreme one.
Ombria in Shadow was overall an interesting read. It’s very rare nowadays to come across a standalone fantasy novel so I’m quite pleased that this author has written a number of standalones. While it could have used more explanation and depth regarding the characters involved, the plot was interesting enough and resolved itself quite nicely to fit one volume. I look forward to reading her future works.