Ombria in Shadow is a strange, dark, beautiful book. Patricia McKillip writes of a kingdom in peril ruled by its regent, Domina Pearl, an impossibly long-lived, terrifying woman as his regent who keeps the child prince for form’s sake. Down below, and partly in the past, another sorceress, Faey, holds sway, generally unconcerned with what happens above save when someone purchases a spell from her. Tangled in all of this are Ducon, the prince’s cousin, Mag, the sorceress’ servant, and Lydea, the former ruler’s mistress. Ducon wants to keep the young prince safe; Lydea also wants to help the prince, but she has to fight for her own life as well. Mag, meanwhile, is growing increasingly curious about the world above and has started to meddle with matters, bringing her into connection with everyone else. All the while, there are tales of a Shadow City that mirrors Ombria and, at times, intersects with it.
As is McKillip’s wont, Ombria in Shadow is dense with intertwining tales as the protagonists try to achieve their goals. The book has a sense of urgency, with betrayals, possibilities, and unsolvable problems face each of them. Domina Pearl is a terrifying woman who wields a vast amount of power efficiently and intelligently. She has been playing the long game and has her pieces where she wants them. Faey’s power is frightening in a different way, largely because she is so casual about it. The non-magical are caught in mazes, both literal and figurative between them. There is always other magic as well for people to wander in and out of, snagged by beauty or danger, or simple curiosity.
The world of Ombria with its crumbling wharfs, strange shadows, mazes and mirrors is richly described. There are dry sunflowers outside the palace gate. Happenings in the street are deftly sketched, and, as ever, McKillip plays with the beauty of words.
The ending is a strange one. Sometimes it is satisfying, other times, not so much. The book is worth reading (and rereading) either way.
Ombria in Shadow is also a pleasure to listen to. Dina Pearlman is a fine reader who knows how to build the suspense when needed, and when to slow. She does a fine job of varying the voices, although Ducon’s occasionally sounds a little off. The volume remains consistent, making this a good book to listen to when hands are full. There is not going to be any sudden need to change the level. Listening also allows for savoring the tale and the beauty of the writing.
Ombria in Shadow is recommended for people who like fantasy with some politicking and an occasional spooky edge to it. The audio version is recommended both for new readers wanting something rich and strange to listen to and for readers coming back again, wanting to see the book from a new angle.
Ombria in Shadow is available in multiple forms