Thursday, January 10, 2013

Musings: Ombria in Shadow

Ombria in Shadow
I think from now on, I am not going to read any Patricia McKillip books without someone to discuss them with me because she writes on a plane that is quite possibly well above my intelligence level.  Ombria in Shadow is no exception.

The book is set in the decaying city of Ombria, where the prince has just died of poisoning.  His heir is only five years old, and his mistress, Lydea, is left back on the streets she came from.  Ruling as regent is the Black Pearl, a woman who should have died centuries ago but manages to keep herself alive through potions and magic no one else knows or understands except for her sorceress, Faey, who provides her with the spells.

But there is growing discontent in Ombria with the Black Pearl.  Lydea, the mysterious Ducon, and a young girl named Mag decide to stand against her in small ways, hoping that inspiration will strike and they'll be able to make a difference some way.

McKillip writes fantasy novels, but they are not like any other fantasy novels I've ever read.  I've read three of her books now (all this year!), and there are some themes that run through them.  They all feature magic, but she's very vague on how the magic works.  They all have women at their center, often forced to make very difficult decisions about what they want and who they will be in life.  And all of them deal with relationships - not just romantic ones, though those are present, too, but much more those relationships that exist between parent and child, and between friends and family who help and hurt each other.

And all of McKillip's novels are written with beautiful language.  A few samples:
Trumpets flashed then, a shout of gold before they spoke.

She felt her heart empty finally, a limp nothing with no more glittering, hard-edged diamonds cutting their way out, no enormous pearls that ached through her throat before they spilled out of her.

Lydea untied the ragged ribbon looped through the ring.  She dropped memories into Faey's palm, a priceless treasure of them, along with love and rue, jewel and gold.
 It's a treat to read one of McKillip's novels, if only to come upon one of those amazing sentences in the midst of your reading.

This book feels more like a Gothic horror than a fantasy - the city is dark and decayed, the horror of Domina Pearl is vague but oppressive, the fear is cloying and ever-present.  The characters were not, in my opinion, the strong point.  I am not sure how this happened, but what stands out most in my mind is the characters' relationships with each other, much more than the characters themselves.  I know of Ducon's protectiveness for the young prince, of Faey's love for her adopted daughter Mag, and Lydea's fragile love for her father.  But the characters don't stand out to me very much on their own.  I'm a reader who likes to get very invested in the characters, so I missed this a lot.  For example, Domina Pearl is the cruel villainess, but I have no idea why she was so cruel.  There are no clues about her past, about her motivations, about what she's working so hard to stay alive for.  Considering that she's the nemesis everyone is fighting against, I found this a little odd.

But McKillip's writing is so lovely.  And I love that she writes books for children and teens and adults that do not have romance at their core - she writes about all the different loves that exist in our lives, and how all of them require enormous amounts of faith and sacrifice and trust.  She writes about the danger of loving things more than people.  She also really trusts her readers - possibly too much.  For example, when reading The Forgotten Beasts of Eld with Ana, I was thoroughly confused by the ending.  For all our internet searching, Ana and I could not find someone to explain it to us.  Similarly, there is a lot that is hinted at but not directly stated in the resolution to Ombria in Shadow and I have a feeling I may have missed out on some Big Ideas here, too, because they were so subtly woven into the story.  I didn't realize before McKillip just how often authors spell everything out for their readers so that there isn't much mystery or speculation required.  McKillip most emphatically does not do this and while I appreciate the faith she has in my intelligence, I do wish someone else would read this book so that we could discuss it :-)

15 comments:

  1. Now this is the kind of fantasy I can see myself reading :)
    It's on my wishlist, when I've read it I'll get back to you and we can discuss!

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    1. That sounds lovely - looking forward to it!

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  2. I think I would like to read it :)

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  3. I've read that book several times. It's on my bookshelf. I have loved Patricia McKillip's writing since I first was given The Riddlemaster series as a teenager. In those days, she used to write more straightforward stories (but still beautiful, lyrical) with more attention to character. Her later books, such as Ombria, are more stylised. The characters are subsumed under theme and the exploration of ideas and imagery. I find myself less interested in reading them because of it, especially as she used to create such absorbing, engaging characters. But there's no denying the gorgeousness of her language.

    If you read more of her books, you'll discover that Ombria has a fairly straight-forward McKillip ending. Try The Sorceress and the Cygnet for a mind-twister! I've read that book dozens of times and still don't know what actually happened! I believe she does it intentionally, to draw her readers over the threshold, to make her stories more an experience than a sequence of logic. I personally found Eld quite straight-forward, but perhaps I am just used to McKillip! Please do ask me any questions you have about it, I will try to explain what I have gathered from two decades of reading that book.

    Have you read the Riddlemaster series? Or Moon-Flash? Or The Changeling Sea? You will be surprised by how different they are from Ombria - containing the same tenderness of language, but more earthy, more traditional stories.

    If you liked Ombria, you will probably also like Song For The Basilisk, The Book of Atrix Wolfe, and Tower At Stony Wood. I personally prefer her older work, she has become too stylistic for me, but having said that, she remains one of my top five favourite writers of all time, and has been my main inspiration for my own work.

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    1. She definitely is a stylistic writer, so I'm glad to hear the Riddlemaster series is more straightforward as I have that on my shelf to read!

      I have The Changeling Sea on my shelf to read, too (I think - I just got it in a big Bookcloseouts shipment, so am hazy about the titles that I got from her). I enjoyed Ombria, but I think I would prefer books with more character development so will probably go for her older work. Thanks for all the info!

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  4. I think I have this one! I really must read her!

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  5. It does sound interesting. But I won't be able to get to it until March maybe and I'll prob forget by then. :)

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    1. Don't you hate when that happens? :-)

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  6. Oh I have 2 McKillip books waiting for me at the library! I just started reading her last year & am in love. Now I've gone ahead & put a request in for this one too (I'm reading her stuff completely at random) so that we can talk about it together. :D

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    1. I just started her last year, too, and ditto on the love thing! I, too, am reading her at random. We are TOTES McKillip twins. I hope you get it and email me about it SOON!

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    2. We are twins! How did you discover her? I was just browsing & randomly pulled a couple of her books off the shelf. :D

      *impatiently stalks library website so my hold will turn up*

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  7. I wish I could remember it well enough to discuss it with you. It is my favorite McKillip novel (thus far) but I haven't read it since it initially came out. I consider it my favorite I think because the whole world within the world theme reminds me of Neverwhere. I like the art aspect as well. All I really remember is liking the characters very much and getting lost in the language. McKillip is truly a lyrical writer. Kinuko Y. Craft's covers for her books are such a perfect match because they are both highly skilled and amazing artists, their work is like poetry and put together it is magical.

    Not enough people talk about her and it is a real shame because she is amazing.

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  8. Darn it, Aarti, I'm purposely NOT reading you so I won't be sucked into all these fabulous books that I have NO TIME to read. Yet. And then I skim by and see this - - -

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