Ombria is a place heaped with history — and secrets. There is a buried city beneath it inhabited by ghosts, accessible only through magical passages and long-forgotten doorways. When the Prince of Ombria dies suddenly, his wicked great-aunt Domina Pearl seizes power by becoming regent to the prince’s young son, Kyel. Minutes after the prince’s death, Domina kicks Lydea, the prince’s longtime mistress, out into the streets to die. But she is saved by a strange girl named Mag, a supposed waxling created by a powerful sorceress who lives underneath the city. With the help of Mag and the prince’s bastard nephew, a strange, silver-eyed man obsessed with drawing, Lydea tries to save Kyel and somehow defeat Domina.
Reading Ombria in Shadow is like stumbling into someone else’s dream, to paraphrase the book. It’s a strange and magical story that has left me entranced from the very first page.
The plot itself seems fairly straightforward at first: a child ruler, an evil regent, a royal bastard…all elements of a traditional fantasy story. However, there is a strangeness to it, the McKillip touch, that gives it a unique flavour.
The worldbuilding contributes to this strangeness. Ombria is sinking in the shadows and its underworld is inhabited by ghosts. The political instability seems to precipitate the shadows’ hold on the city. The heavy atmosphere permeating a world under the influence of a powerful and evil being and slowly descending into darkness offers an interesting contrast with the lightness of the fairytale plot.
My issue with a dreamlike book could have been the characters. I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that it’s not the case in Ombria in Shadow. McKillip anchors her characters to reality with relatable inner turmoils. We follow Mag, Lydea and Ducon (the deceased prince’s bastard nephew) in their struggle to protect Ombria and its legitimate ruler. All three are looking for their identity and trying to find their proper place in a world where they can only live in the margins. They are all endearing: Mag in her quest to reconcile with her true nature and to adjust her moral compass accordingly, and Lydea and Ducon in their selfless and fiercely protective love for Kyel, the child-prince.
As always with McKillip, the writing is sublime and transports us to this eerie universe she created. She managed to craft a story with both an ethereal beauty and more grounded and raw emotions through themes of love (not romantic, which was an unexpected but welcome change) and self-discovery.
Ombria in Shadow seems to be a “marmite” book, if Goodreads ratings are any indication. It’s not very easy to articulate who could be the appropriate audience for it, and it’s not exactly one of those books I would go around recommending left and right and (metaphorically, of course) throwing at people’s faces. The story reads like a slightly destructured fairytale. It has surprised me and enchanted me at every turn. If that sounds like a good fit for you, pick it up without hesitation.