It’s a funny thing, but during the school holidays I seem to have less time for writing blog posts than during the term. So a month has passed since my last post, and that wasn’t really a post anyway. Meanwhile I have eaten a lot of cheese, holidayed in Norfolk and Suffolk, gardened, played with my daughter and read quite a lot, although I haven’t felt like writing about any of the books I have read, much as I enjoyed them. However, I do feel like writing about Ombria in Shadow because I was so struck by it.
I am not well read in fantasy because for a long time I was prejudiced against most of it, despite having immersed myself in the work of C.S. Lewis, George MacDonald, Susan Cooper and Alan Garner as a child. However, all fiction is to some extent fantasy, and fantastical literature can do things that realist literature cannot, and I’ve enjoyed diving in to it. Patricia McKillip being a highly regarded American writer of fantasy I thought I would investigate her work, and Ombria in Shadow, which in 2003 won both the World Fantasy Award and the Mythopoeic Award, seemed a good place to start.
(Kinuko Y. Craft, cover art for Ombria in Shadow, from here)
The plot appears fairly straightforward. Upon the sudden death of Royce Greve, the crown of Ombria passes to Prince Kyel, still a little boy. His creepy great-aunt, Domina Pearl, will act as regent; with eyes apparently everywhere and a very sinister royal guard, only the foolish dare challenge her. What ‘the Black Pearl’ intends is not immediately clear, but it bodes no good for her subjects. Ranged against her, but powerless, are Royce’s former mistress, the bastard son of one of Royce’s sisters and Mag, a girl made of wax by a subterranean sorceress, Faey.
McKillip is rightly admired for her atmospheric prose, and she uses it to evoke a city which bears loose similarities to Renaissance or perhaps eighteenth-century European city states, lit by swords, dressed in brocades and steeped in treachery. Yet for all the rich detail of sapphire-heeled shoes and poison-dribbling toads, the effect is of a dreamlike rather than concrete world, perhaps because McKillip uses a lot of visual description but relies much less on smell, touch or sound to convey her world. This is particularly appropriate to a novel which meditates on ambiguity, illusion and alternative realities. Nothing and nobody is what or whom they appear to be, and sight is proved time and time again to be unreliable, vulnerable to manipulation and trickery. Artists and sorcerers have the most accurate vision.
(Giovanni Battista Piranesi, The Triumphal Arch, from Grotteschi, etching, engraving, drypoint, burnishing; c. 1748; the Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The city itself, rather than any of the characters, forms the focus of the novel. Past its prime, violent and decaying, it is a city with a shadow, another city beneath its streets. This dark city is actually Ombria’s past in physical form: time has been made into place. Those who look hard enough can find entrances to this shadow city in crumbling doorways and old dusty shops; they are usually seeking Faey, who will prepare any potion, poison or charm for a fee. Ombria’s palace too has a shadowy counterpart, a labyrinth of abandoned rooms which – not to spoil too much of the story but I always spoil things a bit in my reviews, sorry, I can’t really write them otherwise – are also a portal to another realm. The city and its shadows are being thrown out of balance by Domina Pearl and ultimately the plot drives towards not the destruction of evil or good but the renewal of Ombria and the restoration of harmony between its two sides.
Biological parents are all but non-existent, but maternal relationships – Domina Pearl’s and Lydea’s with Kyel, Faey’s with Mag – are significant motivators in a story in which the male characters are largely ineffective or unable to act, and the women are powerful and drive the plot. In fact, the biological origins of many of the characters are unclear for much if not all of the novel. Where do Domina Pearl, Faey and Mag really ‘come from’? Even Ducon’s parents remain nameless. The court is full of young men who resemble one another because they are all of the House of Greve, but this doesn’t actually mean anything. They plot but direct what little action they’re capable of against the wrong targets, never Domina Pearl; they resemble kings but do not behave like them. Just as the past, where Faey lives and to which Domina Pearl is deliberately abandoning the present city, may influence but should not define Ombria, so your genetic inheritance does not dictate who you are. Indeed, Faey’s pretend ghosts spouting fake history and the final chapter of the novel (I don’t want to give away any more!) suggest that time is unstable and unreliable anyway.
Here is the passage in which Lydea, the former king’s mistress, visits Faey in her underground mansion. It illustrates McKillip’s style and the book’s interest in time as physical, malleable:
Lydea, drinking an endless cup of tea in the sorceress’s leafy chamber, realized occasionally, in the buried part of her where time still moved, that she was spellbound. Somewhere, hours passed during a single sip; night fell as she replaced her cup in the saucer; the sun rose when she lifted it again. The sorceress, or an illusion of her, spoke lightly of the weather, though there was none, and of people whom she seemed to think that Lydea knew, while her terrible eyes smoldered and fumed boiling pitch and fire. Sentences echoed through time, repeating themselves. Now and then, Lydea, her mind as tranquil as a summer afternoon, heard the echo, felt her mouth move to say something appropriate words that she must have said a hundred times between the moment she began to raise her cup and the moment it touched her lips. She never tasted the tea; she might have been drinking cloud.
‘How fortunate we are that the morning rain has ended,’ the sorceress commented, though neither night nor day was visible around them. ‘We will be able to go after all to—’ She stopped abruptly. Lydea felt perfunctory words leaving her lips like bubbles. The sorceress interrupted her harshly. ‘There is a stranger below.’
Lydea, about to make her usual reply to that, realized she had none. As if a glass dome over her had shattered, she sat in shards of time, bewilderedly trying to piece fragments together. She stared at the teacup halfway to her lips. The tea was stone-cold and had grown a tiny, floating garden of mold.
This is not a novel that teaches you a great deal about human nature but it is a novel which makes you look at the world about you differently. I have found myself addicted to McKillip’s beautiful and suggestive language and her rich use of fairy-tale and Gothic imagery, her ability to conjure mystery and magic, and even though I have an obscene number of books waiting to be read all I want to do now is order all of her novels and immerse myself in her imagination. Are there any other McKillip fans out there? Speak to me!