Award-Winning Fantasy: Ombria in Shadow by Patricia McKillip

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Patricia McKillip is an author I’ve been interested in checking out for a long time. She has won the World Fantasy Award for best novel twice, and was also given the Award for Life Achievement in 2008, in addition to multiple Mythopoeic Awards, and the Locus Award. I was very eager to read Ombria in Shadow and after finishing it, I am glad I did not let this one pass me by! Ombria pulled me into its dream-world almost immediately. I was fascinated by its doorways and reflections and fell completely in love with its characters. The strange metamagical twist ending gave me the same head-turning “what just happened?” feeling that I got when reading Fire and Hemlock in middle school. I was so absorbed in Ombria that I read it in a matter of about 4 days – but it wasn’t until later that I realized that the city of Ombria is really the main character, although we can only see its nature through its image in others.

Ombria in Shadow follows the death of the king of Ombria and the political and magical intrigue that result. Lydea, the king’s mistress wants to protect his heir, the young Prince Kyel, from his domineering great aunt. Along the way, her path crosses with those of Mag – a child made from wax by a sorceress who lives beneath the city, and Ducon – the bastard nephew of the dead king. It wasn’t long before I felt great affection for the characters. Lydea, Mag, and Ducon are unlike many fantasy protagonists – they are often unsure of themselves and they don’t always act wisely, but they are fascinating and – above all – endearing.

Ombria is a beautiful and flourishing city where not everything is as it seems. Mag and the sorceress Faey live below the city in abandoned areas, but there is also another aspect that most of its inhabitants cannot see. Lydea tells Kyel the story of the shadow city “a different city completely, existing side by side with Ombria in a time so close to us that there are places […] where one time fades into another […] you walk through both of them each day, just as, walking down a street, you pass through light and shadow and light.” Gradually, the characters learn that throughout history, reality tips back and forth between which city is real and which is the shadow, although it seems no one is able to remember this change when it occurs.

Partly, I was drawn to pick up Ombria in Shadow because of the title, playing on the Romance root for the word shadow: Umbra (Latin), Ombre (French), or Ombra (Italian). The motif of shadows and reflections is significant throughout the book, especially as it relates to the theme of the relationship between image and reality. The sorceress Faey doesn’t even remember what she looks like – she “borrows” faces to wear; Mag starts to learn she is not what she had always believed; the mastery image and reality blur in some of Ducan’s drawings; and when Lydea goes in disguise to help Kyel, the disguise affects the way she is actually able to behave and interact with others. What is real? How do we know what is real? And how can we convey what we know? These are some pretty existential questions to arise from a fairy tale, but they are significant to the characters as they try to navigate a world where not everything is what it seems on the surface.

The courtly intrigue also makes our perceptions of reality unsure, as it is difficult for the characters to know who can be trusted, who is working together, and who is working for their own purposes. Kyel insists on using puppets to talk with Lydea. It is a way for her to speak through a superficial identity who is actually conveying deeper information.

Perhaps Ombria is the shadow city, and the reflected city is the real one – the city of light. Ducon draws a door to the other world in charcoal and when it is opened brilliant light pours forth. Just as in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, we are only able to see the shadows cast by firelight but are blinded by the sun. Except here there is a temporary overlap of illumination and shadow where things are rewritten. Liminal spaces like these are significant throughout the book where an ordinary-looking doorway may in fact be a threshold to another world. People can meet at the borders but cannot exist in the other world (except perhaps Faey, who is old enough to have seen multiple shifts.) Only people present at the center of the change can remember both the real and shadow cities.

The book concludes in a struggle to control the succession and to discover what will happen when the city goes through its shift. Throughout all, the characters have to come to terms with themselves and their concept of family. I loved this book and I can’t wait to read more by Patricia McKillip.

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