Saturday, November 30, 2013

Review: Ombria in Shadow by Patricia A. McKillip

Ombria in Shadow by Patricia A. McKillip
Published: Ace Books, 2002
Awards Won: World Fantasy Award, Mythopoeic Award

The Book:

“Ombria is a place of both shadows and light, life and death, past and present.  Some doorways may lead you to a familiar tavern, while others may leave you among ghosts or taking tea with a dangerous sorceress.

When the Prince of Ombria dies, the small world of his court becomes a very dangerous place.  His cruel great-aunt Domina Pearl quickly moves to control the heir, an innocent little boy named Kyel.  She also throws the late Prince’s mistress, na├»ve Lydea, out into the streets to die. 

However, not everything is under Domina Pearl’s control.  Lydea survives the night, and remains determined to help the little boy who has become the new Prince.  The royal bastard Ducon, usually lost in his drawings, must now find a way to preserve Kyel’s life as well as his own. Also, treading fearlessly through their danger is Mag, a ‘waxling’ servant of the powerful sorceress who lives underground. If Kyel—and Ombria—have any hope, it is in their hands.”  ~Allie  

 This is my 11th novel for WWEnd’s Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge.  Patricia A. McKillip is a name I’ve heard often, but somehow never got around to reading. This was a pretty short novel, and I finished reading this it in two days, while on a train.

My Thoughts:

The world of Ombria in Shadow is rather dreamlike.  Many small details of the world were described beautifully, while larger concerns were often left quite vague.  There is magic in this world, but its powers and limits are generally not clearly defined. The transitional places in Ombria—doors, for example—don’t always lead into the places you would expect.  People might go through an old door and find themselves in Ombria’s history, surrounded by ghosts.  They might run into the Faey, a face-changing sorceress who sells magic.  Children’s stories also tell of a shadow city, which is somehow both connected to and separate from the Ombria in which the story is set.  All of this was sometimes a bit confusing, but it was easy to just relax and accept each new quirk of the world as it was presented.

I thought it was interesting that while the story was basically political, the main characters were not especially politically motivated.  Lydea, the discarded mistress, was kind of a mix of big sister and mother to the little heir, Kyel.  More than anything, she was distraught to think of what Domina Pearl might do to keep the child (and the kingdom, by extension) under her thumb.  Ducon also seemed more concerned about the welfare of his little cousin Kyel than he was about the state of Ombria.  His main passion, though, was drawing bits and pieces of Ombria with charcoal, and he was only pulled out of that and into the political scene by necessity.  

Mag was possibly the most interesting of the three main characters, as she was raised to believe herself to be the wax construct of a sorceress.  Her upbringing gave her a sense of detachment from the world, and I think her youth and inexperience gave her the fearlessness of someone who doesn’t really understand personal consequences.  As a result, she meddled in dangerous affairs on a whim, seemingly just to help make sure that the ‘winners’ were the people she liked.  These three characters were one of the strengths of the novel, for me, and I really enjoyed the different perspective they showed on a generally familiar kind of story.

In terms of the plot, the novel seemed to be both convoluted in its details and simple in the central story.  The main focus would have to be considered the struggle against the evil Domina Pearl, to stop her from destroying both Kyel and Ombria.  Domina Pearl is not an especially nuanced villain. In fact, I kept thinking of her as a more evil version of Yzma from Emperor’s New Groove.  However, there’s a lot of personal growth for the main characters—for Lydea, as she learns to define herself in her post-mistress life, for Mag, as she comes to understand who and what she is, and for Ducon, who longs to know the identity of his father.  A lot of questions remain unanswered in this short novel, while other parts of the story are wrapped up almost too neatly.  In the end, though, it was a very pleasant two days that I spent immersing myself in the world of Ombria.

My Rating: 4/5
Ombria in Shadow was a short, entertaining novel set in the confusingly magical place of Ombria.  The main plot seemed fairly standard, featuring a succession struggle centering around the evil, ancient Domina Pearl, after the death of the Prince.  I enjoyed that the three main characters—the late Prince’s mistress Lydea, the illegimate royal Ducon, and the ‘waxling’ Mag—were surprisingly un-invested in the political struggle, and cared more for the welfare of specific individuals.  The setting was magical and dreamlike, though many details about the world are left to the imagination.  Overall, it was a very pleasant novel, and I think I will definitely check out more of McKillip’s work in the future. 

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