Patricia McKillip is one of those writers who, much like Peter S. Beagle, makes the rest of us lowly wordsmiths want to hang up our words and call it a day. Maybe it's sentences like "The river narrowed, quickened, its surface trembling like the eyes of dreamers" or phrases like "but in that house who could assume that even fire and water would not conspire?" that make me melt into a puddle of envy. Or maybe it's the fact that I loved her characters better in the first five pages than I've loved other characters after entire books spent in their company. Whatever the case may be, from those first few twinkling words in Ombria in Shadow, I was enchanted. I wanted to pour those gorgeous words on the floor and roll around in them like a dog, hoping their scent would rub off on me.
The cover art for Ombria in Shadow, featuring the lovely Lydea.
Buy it here.
The story begins with the death of the Prince of Ombria as his mistress, beautiful flame-haired tavern girl, Lydea, mourns with the child heir, Kyel. One by one, the young prince's guards and servants are sent away as his great aunt, Domina Pearl, seeks to isolate him and appoint herself regent. After Lydea is cast into the streets like rubbish, no longer having her royal lover to protect her, the bastard lordling, Ducon Greve, is left as the only person in the castle looking after his cousin, Prince Kyel's, interests. As the claw-like grip of Domina Pearl closes over the kingdom, the city of Ombria looks to be in dire straits.
And yet, there is a legend of a shadow city beneath Ombria, filled with the ghosts of Ombria's history. Lurking among those ghosts is an ancient sorceress named Faey and her precocious waxling, Mag. While Faey isn't normally interested in the affairs of the world above, Mag is drawn to investigate the unfolding events in the castle, fascinated by Ducon and Lydea and disgusted by Domina Pearl. But her meddling puts the two parallel worlds on a collision course that could change the city of Ombria forever.
Fan art of Lydea. (No pun intended.)
Original image found here.
There isn't a person in this book that doesn't evoke a strong response in the reader. Lydea has a strong, sad grace to her, obviously stricken by the tragedy of losing her beloved, but channeling her energy into bravery and loyalty rather than disappearing into grief. Ducon Greve is intriguing and seductive as a beautiful, mysterious man fixated on drawing shadows with his ever-present piece of charcoal, seeming to see something in the ruins that others cannot. Devoted to his young cousin, Ducon is as quiet and steady as a marble pillar as he tries to "hold up the sky over the young prince's head," as one character put it.
Fan art of Ducon Greve. Original image found here.
Much like the castle laundresses, a reader finds herself thinking she wouldn't
mind a little charcoal on her sheets, for this fellow.And Kyel. Poor Kyel. The embattled young prince is so vulnerable and forlorn that you want to hug him and hide him away from the Black Pearl's menace. And then there's Mag, who is beginning to suspect that she might be human and not just one of Faey's concoctions. She is so curious, quick-witted, and warm that you'll end up wanting to scamper through the shadows of the city with her, hiding in plain sight as you explore the city's secrets. Even relatively minor characters like Lydea's father, who suffered the sting of having been abandoned by his daughter for her royal lover, tug at your feels until you're trying to convince yourself that there's just something in your eye.
When it comes to Faey, with her changing faces and casual magical prowess, I get an impression that she had a little scary Galadriel-under-the-influence-of-the-One-Ring lurking under the surface of her graceful reserve. Yet as arcane and mysterious as she is, there is humanity in her, as well as humor and practicality. She serves as an elegant counterpoint to Domina Pearl's potent malevolence. As villains go, Domina Pearl is the creme de la creme of baddies. She comes on like an aged Lady Vader, complete with impeccable helmet-like hair and mysterious powers. Such was her badassery that every time somebody shook a fist and railed against her, all I could think was, "Good luck, man. I hope that works out for you. But, you know, doubtful."
Aside from her magical way with words, unmatched creativity, and engrossing characters, McKillip offers any aspiring writer a crash course in how to show rather than tell. I never needed to get a thinky inner monologue from Lydea as to how she felt about losing Prince Royce, because it sighed out hauntingly from her actions after his death such that I got tear-eyed over a love I never actually witnesses in its heyday. It's just one example, but I walked away from this book so captivated by her skill that I wanted to try some of these tricks, myself, and hope to be even half as good at them.
So, to sum, if you like beautifully written books that capture the imagination and make you fall in love with the characters, pick up a copy of Ombria in Shadow today!