Ombria in Shadow by Patricia McKillip (thoughts)
One of the things I love most about McKillip’s writing is how twisty it is. Often times, I feel like I’ve only gotten a sidelong look at the world; I even catch myself squinting to see if it makes things any clearer. I love this because it reflects how I imagine magic would act in the real world, subject to all of those uncertainty principles running through quantum physics. Ombria in Shadow was certainly one of the twistier McKillip novels I’ve read, although its obliqueness didn’t stop me from falling in love with the characters.
There is Mag the waxling and her sorceress mistress Faey, an oddly ancient and powerful creature who lives beneath Ombria. There is a child prince, and a young woman who finds herself for him, and a bastard uncle who prefers drawing to scheming but is adept at finding secret passages. There is Ombria itself, a city-state that rather resembled Venice in my imagination, although without the canals, and its underground city, and even another shadow city that’s hinted at in rumours (and of course in Ombria’s very name, which irresistably calls to mind ‘umbra,’ Latin for shadow). Most of all, there is the book’s tone and prose style, which perfectly capture a baroque, decaying grandeur and sweep the reader up in the characters’ desperate attempts to foil the ageless, all-knowing Dominica Pearl and her usurping of the throne.
It’s impossible for me to talk about the way the characters, especially the female ones, are tested and changed without giving away more of the plot that I’d like to. Just suffice it to say, McKillip does wonderful things with each of them, things that feel completely organic to the story but would also provide much fodder for a feminist book club. The ending is a bit tricky, although not quite as confusing for me as Diana Wynne Jone’s Fire and Hemlock, but it still felt like it fit with the rest of the novel.
In case you can’t tell by now, I loved Ombria in Shadow, as I have every McKillip book I’ve so far encountered. I urge to read her, but depending on your taste, this might not be the best one to start with. If you prefer slightly more straightforward plots with clearer endings, I’d suggest The Bell at Sealey Head or Alphabet of Thorn. If, on the other hand, you adore Helen Oyeyemi or similar authors, dive into this one!