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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Ombria in Shadow by Patricia A. McKillip

Ombria in Shadow (New York: Ace Books, 2003) by Patricia A. McKillip, is a good book. As the Wikipedia article on the book says, it won the Mythpoeic Award, and the World Fantasy Award.

Like most McKillip works, I read it twice -- once to get an idea of what was going on, and once to get some of the details.

The Wikipedia article, referenced above, considers the plot. I wish to muse about other things.

First, the title. Ombria is a city. McKillip doesn't connect it with a country, or a planet, except that it has docks, and ships come and go. She treats it as an entity unto itself. The shadow part of the title relates to two aspects of the city. First, there is an under-city. There are tunnels and passages, sunken rooms and mansions, under the city known to most of the inhabitants, and even in the palace. Then, there is a shadow city -- a city separate from the "real" city, but somehow linked to it: "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 . . ." (Lydea to Kyel, p. 4)

Then, the characters. Lydea is one of them. She grew up as the daughter of a tavern keeper, but Royce Greve, the prince of Ombria, took her as his mistress when his wife died. Kyel is the five-year-old son of that first wife. As the book begins, Royce Greve is dying. An ancient, evil relative, Domina Pearl, also known as the Black Pearl, takes power as regent for Kyel. She expels Lydea from the palace. The "real" Ombria is such a corrupt city that Domina Pearl, and Lydea, don't expect her to last through her first night in it. There are evil people abroad. But Lydea does survive, thanks to Mag, another of the main characters. Mag is the teen-aged ward of Faey, a sorceress, who knows the under-city as well as anyone. She helps Lydea get to her father's tavern, without being seen by Lydea. Faey calls Mag her "waxling," pretending that she has made Mag out of the drippings of candle wax, to help her run errands of all kinds. The last main character is Ducon Greve, the illegitimate son of Royce Greve's dead sister.

Next, love. Lydea loves Kyel. So does Ducon. And, it develops, Faey loves Mag, and Mag loves her. (They both know that she is human.) In all cases, this love is unselfish, giving love -- concern for, and exerting effort for, the other person.

In the end, Faey, with help from Mag and Ducon, destroys Domina Pearl. Love triumphs. There are hints that Lydea and Ducon are in love with each other, too. Ducon becomes regent, and he begins to set Ombria to rights, having trash cleaned up, and getting the gangs off the streets, and into useful pursuits.

Finally, I'm going to include a quotation from the book, not because it is central to the plot, but to show what sort of writing McKillip does: Air trembled on the threshold, smelling of grass, slow rain, and lavender. A light sparked, reflecting Ducon's candle; how near or far, he could not tell in the utter darkness. There were voices, whisperings. A bell began its slow dirge, faint and far away within the shadow, for someone who had died. Ducon felt the icy hand of sorrow and wonder glide over him. Shaken, unable to move, he heard a second bell, louder, on this side of the shadow, its great open mouth speaking the word that Royce Greve could not. Ducon closed his burning eyes and wondered if, in the shadow city, someone stood like him, in a secret place, listening to the mourning bell of a city within a tale. (32. Ducon is in the old passages in the Palace.)

Thanks for reading!

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