Ombria in Shadow is a dreamy, standalone fantasy novel published in 2002 by Patricia McKillip.
It follows two main plot threads that interweave: one plot that follows the politics of the upperworld of the city of Ombria, as the prince Royce Greve dies, leaving his mistress, Lydea, and the young child heir Kyle at the clutches of Domina Pearl. And that of the underworld of Ombria, peopled by ghosts and magics of a sorceress named Faey, and that of her waxling ward, young Mag.
Sometimes McKillip is influenced from a specific fairy-tale, such as Winter Rose being based on the Ice Queen tale, or The Forrest of Serre taking inspiration from the Russian Fire Bird folk story. However, Ombria doesn’t seem to be based on any specific legend; rather, it blends together various staples from the fairy-tale genre: a realm in disarray, a plucky court mistress, a child ruler, plots by an evil aunt, a bastard, magics. The whole kit and kaboodle really.
The first thing that strikes you when grabbing a copy of Ombria in Shadow is undoubtedly the cover. It’s a mix of Pre-Raphaelite and fantastical beauty.
There’s no one protagonist, as the author slips through various points of view throughout. However, Lydea, and Mag (who believes she is made of wax, when really she is just human) do get the lion’s share of development. Both women essentially go on a quest to find out the secrets of the city, as they walk between two worlds. One of the benefits of this is the idea that a location’s history is bound up with its current form, like layers constantly overlapping in real-time, which is revealed to the reader as they venture deeper down into the city’s depths:
“Lydea, roaming through the mansion in search of the sorceress while Ducon slept, felt as if she moved backward in time, wandering haphazardly through layers of history that changed at random and were never consecutive.”
McKillip’s writing is nothing short of enchanting. As you read through Ombria, it feels like you’re taking a personal tour of the city itself, knowing its alley, palaces, and underground caverns as much as the characters themselves. It feels like walking through a kind of drunken dream, the prose isn’t laser-focused on plot or complex world building, but rather on images tightly packed in the small locus of a decaying city:
“…lamps along the banks, iron wrought fantasies of palaces and carriages and wind-blown galleons that Faey lit when she happened to remember, tossed flowers of fire on the water. Houses on the river crumbled in the damp, revealing pale, elegant rooms, massive hearths, delicate paints. Their roofs sometimes rose to support the streets above.”
I don’t usually read YA, but I’ll happy make an exception for Patricia McKillip’s works. Ombria is appropriate for both teens and adults. If you want to step into a decaying, fantastical, drunken dream, then McKillip’s works are that doorway.