Ombria In Shadow
by Patricia A. McKillip
Tied for 2003 World Fantasy Award Winner
I have become convinced that Patricia McKillip ranks among the greatest authors in the world. That's not because Ombria In Shadow is a brilliant novel; I just found it to be interesting. It's not because I'm impressed with her body of work; I've only read her World Fantasy Award winning novels. It's not even any particular aspect of her writing. The reason is simple: twice she has over the course of a book taken me from something I hate to something I enjoyed.
Here's the arc I followed when reading Ombria In Shadow:
Starting out: Generic fantasy? Ugh... this is going to be terrible.
Half way through: Well the novel's skillfully done but it's not really my thing.
At the end: That was pretty good.
Any author who can do that to me twice is brilliant.
Ombria is a kingdom in chaos. It's old ruler died leaving a child as his heir. An ancient witch has worked her way into power and is acting as the regent. Those who care about the child have been separated from him: the old ruler's mistress dumped into the harsh streets of the decaying city and a bastard who might have shielded the child has been threatened into inactivity. There is a legend of two Ombrias existing, one in shadow and one in light, and when the kingdom is broken they switch places.
There are two things I found effective in that story that managed to win me over. Neither of those was the setting which was yet another psuedo-medieval thing. In fairness to McKillip she kept the focus narrow enough that I was constantly rubbed the wrong way by modern concepts in her setting. At the same time it wasn't drawn in great detail at the broadest level. So I wasn't pushed away but neither was I pulled in.
Similarly McKillip's villain isn't really villainous for the bulk of the novel. People talk about her like she's a monster but this is a novel of intrigue. What people say could simply be rumors, deception, or general dislike. The villain does turn nasty at the very end of the book though for the majority of the book I was wondering why everyone hated her.
What worked for me were the rest of the characters. In McKillip's previous World Fantasy Award winner The Forgotten Beasts of Eld I was impressed with how well her characters were developed. She has continued that in Ombria in Shadow where the majority of the small cast was effectively developed. The protagonists in particular are exactly what I appreciate: they're flawed, they grow, and most importantly of all they are interesting. An illigitamate son divided between his desire for peace, an offer for the throne, and family loyalty is inherently interesting and McKillip plays up the conflicting drives. While I had no doubt as to what would be done in the end the journey was interesting because of how it was internalized.
The other thing is McKillip's prose. She has an interesting style that pulled me along. Occasionally I found it be obscure; "Was that metaphorical or not?" and then I'd have to reread that section a few times until I worked it out. That just emphasized how well McKillip did with the atmosphere of the novel. Her world is an uncertain hazy thing and this style emphasized the magic in the setting.
I can't say that I'd seek out more books by McPhillip. She writes novels that as a rule I shouldn't like and the subject matter doesn't interest me. So with Ombria in Shadow I'll depart on good terms, appreciating the book and recommending it. Perhaps someday our path will cross again and I hold out hope that when happens that I am once more similarly impressed.