My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Ombria in Shadow is one of two books by McKillip that won the World Fantasy Award, the other being The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, which I read a few years ago. It is set in the city of Ombria, where the prince has just died and his great-aunt, Domina Pearl, is acting as regent for the prince’s young son Kyel. Lydea takes refuge in her father’s tavern and receives mysterious help from a girl named Mag, who serves the sorceress Faey. Ducon, the dead prince’s nephew (and Kyel’s cousin), whose charcoal drawings depict the otherworldly counterpart of Ombria; the shadow city. Lydea, Mag, and Ducon are the main viewpoint characters. This book has much more plot than The Forgotten Beasts of Eld; I wouldn’t called it fast-paced but it’s certainly intricate. There’s no obvious single protagonist, but the characters are all interesting, and Domina Pearl is a wonderfully haunting villain. The ending is satisfying, which wasn’t the case for me in Alphabet of Thorn and possibly The Bell at Sealey Head, although I don’t remember that second one well enough to say why.
What really stands out in this book is the setting. The mysterious city of Ombria was great, maybe the most interesting setting that I’ve read from McKillip so far. I think I like this better than The Bell at Sealey Head although since that one is similarly intensely focused on a small setting, I’m now wondering how it would compare if I read it again. I’ll probably read more by this author, but I’m not sure which book to read.
The writing is beautiful; here are some of my favorite bits:
“Faey lived, for those who knew how to find her, within Ombria’s past. Parts of the city’s past lay within time’s reach, beneath the streets in great old limestone tunnels: the hovels and mansions and sunken river that Ombria shrugged off like a forgotten skin, and buried beneath itself through the centuries…”
“There was the gaudy patch of sunflowers beside the west gate of the palace of the Prince of Ombria, that did nothing all day long but turn their golden-haired, thousand-eyed faces to follow the sun.”
“Mag had learned to move through the streets like a musician moved through music, tuning it note by note with every breath, every touch. A rough voice in the dark could render her invisible; at a touch, she was simply gone, up a pipe, down a barrel, down deeper than that, through a shadow or a door. Not being human, she never wondered at what humans did. She had seen them pilfer each other’s watches, slit each other’s throats, break each other’s hearts. She had seen newborns tossed away with yesterday’s rubbish. She had stepped over men snoring drunk on the cobbles; she had walked around women with bleeding faces, slumped in rich, torn gowns, weeping and cursing in tavern alleys. Since she was wax, none of this concerned her; they might have been dreams or ghosts she moved through, until they tried to pull her into their night-terrors.”
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