"Ombria in Shadow," Patricia McKillip

Pros: Elegant, imaginative, unusual
Cons: Can’t think of any!
Rating: 5 out of 5

First posted 5/28/2002

A long time ago I needed to write a book report for school. I picked Patricia McKillip’s The Forgotten Beasts of Eld because… well, because it looked short, to be honest. And it enchanted me. I think it was really aimed at a younger audience than I was at that time, but that didn’t matter at all. It captivated me and refused to let me go. I think I still have my copy, even though at some point I gave most of my old books to the MIT Science Fiction Library.

So when I saw that Patricia McKillip had a new book out, I couldn’t resist. A part of me was a little nervous, though. What if, all grown up, I found that her writing really wasn’t very good after all? What if her writing had changed for the worse? Yesterday I finished “Ombria in Shadow”. I can say that although the experience was slightly less intense, I am enchanted. I am captivated. I feel the urge to go out and track down all of Ms. McKillip’s other books and read them one after the other!

Writing Quality

I can only give Ms. McKillip’s writing the highest praise possible: which is to say, I didn’t notice it. Not one word. It never once pulled me out of the world of the story, and to me, that is the definition of good writing. I don’t have a single memory of exposition or word choice. I experienced no disbelief with respect to the characters or the events. I wasn’t always literally sure of the events that were taking place, but that’s more a matter of style than anything else. I rather appreciate ambiguous endings and a few unsolved mysteries. I certainly didn’t get the feeling that any of the confusions were unintentional on the author’s part.

Ideally, in fiction, the writing should take back seat to the story; we shouldn’t be noticing it at all. That ideal was reached in this book. Strictly speaking some teachers would probably say there is an overly high use of adverbs in this book. However, unlike most writers, Ms. McKillip makes them work for her instead of against her. (That’s a pretty impressive feat!)

The Story

The story is something of a fairy-tale. It opens as the Prince of the city of Ombria lies dying. His mistress and his son sit together, talking through puppets and telling stories. The boy, Kyel, asks for the story of the fan.

It was a delicate thing of slender ivory sticks and a double layer of folded rice paper. One side was a painting, the other an intricately cut silhouette, a shadow world behind a painted world that could be seen when the fan was held up to the light.

Ombria is the oldest, most beautiful, most powerful, and richest city in the world, according to legend. But Ombria has a shadow.

“The shadow city of Ombria is as old as Ombria. Some say it is a different city completely, existing side by side with Ombria in a time so close to us that there are places–streets, gates, old houses–where one time fades into the other, one city becomes the other. Others say both cities exist in one time, this moment, and you walk through both of them each day, just as, walking down a street, you pass through light and shadow and light…”

As soon as the prince breathes his last breath, his mistress is escorted to the gates of the palace by Domina Pearl. Dead for some time now (or so rumor has it), yet the Black Pearl manages to exert influence in the royal house. Even Ducon, the bastard cousin of Kyel (the new young prince), is uncertain he can protect Kyel from her machinations.

Who will die in the halls of the palace or the violent streets below? Who will fall victim to coarse violence or subtle poison? Will the young prince live to rule his kingdom? Will his handsome bastard cousin Ducon, with the odd white hair and silver eyes (and a penchant for artistic endeavors), protect Kyel or fall in with the young conspirators who want him dead?

Lydea, the mistress, flees from the palace as soon as the gates are shut behind her, desperate to reach her father’s tavern before someone can kill her for her rings, her rich clothing, her long red hair. Someone (or something) protects her flight, allowing her to reach home safely. While beneath the city, in the ruins of a much older city, a sorceress who calls herself Faey plies her trade for anyone who can pay her price. Her “waxling,” Mag, who has only recently begun to realize that she is human, helps her–and sometimes interferes with her. Unfortunately it is the Black Pearl who most often calls upon Faey’s services, and the Black Pearl has a plan for Ombria…


By far the greatest thing about this book is the characterization. Lydea, Ducon, Kyel, the Black Pearl, Mag, and particularly Faey, among others, are fascinating people. They are interesting, never stereotypes. Even Kyel, who is not one of the point-of-view characters, is more than just your standard fairy-tale boy. He is bursting with hurt for the loss of his family and friends, yet Ducon keeps telling him that he must do as the Black Pearl says. He is haunted by the situation he finds himself in.

The sorceress was waiting for him at the bottom. She looked dishevelled, still half-dreaming, her face vague in the gentle lamplight, perhaps not all there. She yawned, voluminously and noisily, patting absently at the billows and snarls of her hair. It was completely white. One of her lovely eyes was turquoise, the other emerald, as though she had groped for them and put them on in the dark. Just beyond light, and just within his eyesight, Ducon glimpsed the glowing, restless currents of her powers that never aged, never slept.

What is the shadow city? Is it legend or real? Is it a transformation, or something always there? And what triggers it–what (or who) is the key? This book is a fairy tale. It begins with the story of the fan, and ends with a story of a princess and a locket. The tale is elegant, imaginative, vibrant. It comes alive, and I remember the images more than the words.

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