Ombria in Shadow
Writing a summary of the plot of a Patricia McKillip novel is a daunting task. Not that the books don’t have plots – they do. But the plots are so oddly and complexly woven that they defy description. Still, I’ll try. The setting for this story is Ombria, a city that is really two cities – the above-ground, every-day city, and the hidden, ghostly city underground, made up of memories from the upper-level city’s past. In the daylight city, an evil and ancient woman has killed the rightful king of Ombria and thrown his mistress into the streets; his son is a young child and his nephew is a bastard, so she plans to take over without opposition. But caught between the two cities is a girl made of wax with a human heart, and her owner, a mercenary enchantress with terrifying power. These characters and more move between the levels of Ombria as the plot drives ahead to its conclusion.
McKillip’s forte is, as has been said before, her writing style, and this book does not disappoint there. Once again she uses startling imagery and beautiful descriptions to bring her work alive through poetic prose. Dreams and reality merge in an impressionistic whirl. Motifs – in this book, chalk particularly (in others, embroidery or leaves or any number of things) – resurface continually, highlighting her poetic technique. Her style is indescribable and inimitable, but utterly gorgeous.
Morally, the book seems to have no particular message; it is certainly odd enough in its dream-like style, but seems fairly harmless. The lack of distinction between dreams and reality appears to be more an artistic endeavor than an expression of a worldview. Much of the magic does seem rather occultic, but in a world such as that McKillip creates, a very far cry from anything resembling our own world, such a resemblance is less problematic. Still, the book is certainly not Christian in its outlook.