“In that house who could assume that even fire and water would not conspire?”
The main character of this novel is the shadowy city Ombria itself, and the Byzantine dealings of its royal house. But first there is Lydea, mistress of the prince. When the prince lies dying, Lydea is thrown out of the palace by the heartless regent Domina Pearl (“the black pearl”), and crawls back to her father’s tavern to beg for a job. In her mind though she hasn’t left the palace and she’s afraid that Domina will murder the young boy Kyel who’s heir to the throne.
Ombria has secrets. There is a second city, made of shadows and of the past, running beside and underneath Ombria, with hidden entrances all around. Meg, who used to think she was wax but recently learned she is in fact human, runs errands for the witch Faey who inhabits this shadow-world. One of her jobs has her delivering magical items to Domina Pearl.
And there are more protagonists; no obvious main character. All their stories revolve around Ombria’s royal palace: vast and ancient, creaking, full of shadows and hidden passages. McKillip creates something similar to Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast here, only with a less quirky tale around it. Ombria is a city that cannot shake its past. Is, in fact, dragged down by it. Both the palace and the shadow world are dominated by two hags, Domina and Faey, who suck the life out of it. This is how McKillip creates myth out of reality. She embodies the lifeless past in the form of old hags and shadows.
No wonder that our protagonists, Lydea, Meg and Ducon, are young people and stuck in the way. Most of the story follows their paths and plots, and occasionally these intersect in interesting ways. Thus the city renews itself, but the young have to fight for it, and McKillip has some nice plot twists up her sleeve. Look very hard and you can see allegories for the old trying to control the young, but none of it feels forced or predictable. In fact, the allegory starts to muddle as the story changes shape and alliances shift.
Ombria in Shadow is a finely realized story full of believable, layered characters and touching conversations. There are brilliant descriptions here, of Faey’s workshop of magic, for example, where Meg has to assist her. The smelly streets of Ombria are another, and the bowels of the royal palace. The story itself strangely fails to escalate; the same handful of characters do a lot of running back and forth, but the story slowly glides forward at the same pace, and even though it talks about deep history, the small cast makes it feel like a small story. And when the resolution arrives, it is a bit confusing. Nevertheless, it’s entertaining, has a sense of wonder and is definitely worth reading.