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Ombria in Shadow UK cover
Ombria in Shadow US cover

Welcome to the first instalment of the Strange Horizons book club! On the fourth Monday of each month, we'll be posting a round-table discussion about a speculative work (or work of interest to readers of SF), and we invite you join us for further conversation in the comments. November's book will be Nick Harkaway's novel Tigerman (other forthcoming picks are listed here); but this month we're discussing Ombria in Shadow by Patricia A. McKillip.

McKillip's 25th novel, Ombria was first published in 2002, following which it won the World Fantasy Award in 2003. It has received its first UK edition this year as a Fantasy Masterwork from Gollancz. It is the story of a city, and a succession: as the novel opens, Royce Greve, the Prince of Ombria, is dying, and his great-aunt Domina Pearl is planning to rule as regent for the Prince's young son, Kyel. We meet three viewpoint characters—Lydea, the dying ruler's mistress, who is expelled from the palace on his death; Ducon, his bastard nephew, who may be in a position to challenge Domina, if he chooses; and Mag, a "waxling" who may or may not be fully human, who lives with the sorceress Faey in the city's shadows and past. What follows is a power struggle of sorts, a questioning of loyalties and identities, and ultimately a moment of crisis and change for all Ombria.

Discussing Ombria in Shadow are:

David Hebblethwaite, a reviewer for Strange Horizons whose writing has appeared in various other venues, including Vector, The Zone, Fiction Uncovered, and We Love This Book. He blogs at Follow the Thread.

Erin Horáková, a southern American writer who lives in London with her partner. She's working towards her literature PhD at Queen Mary, which focuses on how charm evolves over time. Erin reviews for Strange Horizons, and her journalistic and academic work have also appeared in a variety of other venues. She tweets @ehorakova.

Chris Kammerud, a graduate of the 2012 Clarion Writers' Workshop at UCSD. Presently, he's revising a novel concerning love, revolution, and virtual K-Pop idols. Past work has appeared in The Interstitial Arts Online Annex, Fiction Weekly, and Strange Horizons. He lives in London. For more, visit his blog, or follow him on Twitter.

Audrey Taylor, who is finishing a PhD at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge on McKillip's secondary-world fantasies.

In our archives you can also read our original review of Ombria in Shadow, as well as reviews of Wonders of the Invisible World and The Bell at Sealey Head.

Is there a "main character" in the novel? Why, or why not? To what extent are the characters' importance to the narrative shaped by ideas about family?

Erin Horáková: The schmaltzy immediate answer is that ~~Ombria Itself!!~~ is the main character: its dynamic arc is the novel's core, the characters are defined by their relationships with it, it's multi-faceted and heavily described yet ultimately unknowable blah blah. I think, ultimately, that might be kind of a cop-out though. I'd say the novel has three main characters: Lydea, Ducon, and Mag.

The point the question makes about family is good, but it's a difficult question to answer. Family is both:

  1. important to these characters as people, and
  2. the outward-looking attribute that enables the plot to function, and to matter.

If Lydea didn't care about Kyel (though is he quite a son to her?), she'd have stayed out of things and tavern-wenched on. Family wasn't important enough to stop her running off initially, though arguably she did so to form a "family" of two with her lover. If Ducon didn't care about Kyel, he'd have plotted and probably perished. If Mag didn't feel strange kinship with Ducon, she'd have let Faey kill him. She's motivated by a daughter's duty to and tension with Faey, and by questions about her parentage. Her questions about the extent she belongs to and with humanity are an extension of these.

But at the same time, we don't know much about Ducon's feelings for Kyel. We see them play out, but we don't know much about how and why he has them (not necessarily something we should take for granted or extrapolate from our own socially-contextualized experience of what "family" means), how he experiences them. Same for Lydea's feelings about Kyel, who is himself, before he's ever bewitched out of his personality, a cypher (in part because he's a child, in part because he's more plot device than person—which isn't necessarily a problem).

Audrey Taylor: I agree family is an interesting focal point for a discussion about character in Ombria. The book is more about finding family than being in a family, in spite of the main premise of dynastic inheritance. Learning to love, to find or make a family, is one of the key elements all the main characters have in common (I include Mag, Lydea, and Ducon here but also perhaps more seemingly peripheral characters like Faey and Kyel—but more of why them in a moment). All the characters but Domina Pearl and the Tutor (the "bad" characters) are looking for, and have found, family at the end. And at the end Kyel has substitute parents in the form of Ducon, Faey, and even Mag (who all have each other, as well as Lydea having a repaired relationship with her father). A pivotal point in Mag's life is swallowing a "heart" spell, one that makes her realise that she is human. As the sorceress Faey's apprentice, Mag has assumed that she was made.

This brings me back to why I have included Faey and Kyel as main characters. Though each occupies less space in the book than the others they are pivotal to the story. Lydea and Ducon's love for Kyel drive them to every action within the book. And though Faey is an inherently, purposefully mysterious character, she too is pivotal, sometimes literally so in the turning of Ombria from one incarnation to the next (Faey is the key that precipitates change). Crucially, it is Faey's love for Mag that causes her to rise from her underground domain in order to rescue her from Domina Pearl.

I did not include Domina Pearl and the tutor in my original list of main characters simply because it is their lack of familial feeling, of love, that distinguishes them from the other characters. Domina Pearl and Faey are in many respects similar (powerful sorceresses with their own domains etc.), at one point they are even described as "twins" by Lydea, but it is Domina Pearl's complete inability to love another that truly distinguishes them. The Tutor too, who only loves history, has betrayed Ducon and presumably others in his quest for "the truth" of Ombria. Though less overtly ruthless than Domina he is equally treacherous because he has some of the character's trust, unlike Domina Pearl who is overtly evil.

More could be said—I do think that the city of Ombria itself is a prominent character. But I will leave it there for now.

David Hebblethwaite: I would agree with Erin that Lydea, Ducon, and Mag are the three main characters. I think it's worth noting in this context that all three of them are "incomplete" as a character in some way. Mag is incomplete in the sense that she doesn't know who (or indeed what) she actually is. Ducon is incomplete because his background is uncertain, there are gaps in his memory, and so on. Lydea is made incomplete by Royce's death; now that she's no longer the ruler's mistress, she doesn't know where to turn. Later, she becomes incomplete as Lydea again, when she gets back into the palace in the guise of Mistress Thorn (note how McKillip treats Lydea and Thorn as two separate personae). What's driving all three of these characters in part is the need/desire to become complete individuals (which, paradoxically, they achieve through "family" of one sort or another).

I'm in two minds as to whether I think of Ombria as a main character: there's a distance to it as a setting—the fact that it's unknowable, combined with that it's the reader who ultimately pieces together what is happening (while the characters don't truly get a handle on it)—that leaves Ombria in the background for me. It's part of a wider elusiveness to the novel that I found very effective (and rather distinctive in this kind of courtly fantasy).

Family is an interesting issue, because although it's central to so much of the novel, it also seems to me that McKillip's characters can often have an indirect relationship to it as the book plays out. For example, Mag doesn't really have a family as such (except a proxy family in Faey); and Ducon doesn't discover his fully until the end. Come to think of it, perhaps we could say that acceptance into (or a sense of) family represents stability in the novel—hence the closing image of Lydea returning home to her father.

Chris Kammerud: As far as who is the main character or characters, it's such a deliciously ambiguous question because it depends so much on what we think the words mean. I see where Audrey's coming from in thinking of the main characters as those who find family. It's so central to this story (as David said), and to so many stories of fallen kingdoms that have been turned to stone or despair or taken to long naps—it's always about finding, creating, or bringing back that, um, loving feeling. I would tend more towards Erin and David, though, in thinking of the main characters as being Lydea, Ducon, and Mag, as it is their actions that drive Faey and Domina into open conflict, and so precipitates the turning of Ombria. I think of main characters as being main characters because the story serves as a reflection of their soul. For Ombria in Shadow, reading it as a tale of mourning and moving on, of reconstructing one's sense of self in family in the wake of death of one kind or another (for Ducon and Lydea it's their father and lover, respectively; for Mag it's literally herself, or sense of self, as something other than human), I see that turning of Ombria as a turning in those three characters, a transformation from one kingdom to the next.

So, as to family, ditto to Erin in her thinking of how a desire and question of family, or at least of connection, seem to drive a lot of the characters' actions—and especially, as Audrey says, that shift in Faey from "Mag is just this thing I whipped together one day" to "wait, oh, I really, really, actually love this little human thing," plays a huge role of importance in the narrative. David makes a good point, too, about how the novel ends with Lydea returning home, to the home before her time in the castle, but to a new life, presumably. I think, too, though, there's something interesting in just looking at how traditional ideas of family roles shape how characters function in the narrative. The elders (Domina and Faey) seem to possess all the knowledge of the past, and so have all this amazing power; and then there's the children, Ducon, Lydea, and Mag, who are the adolescents, as it were, the ones coming of age and so the ones that seem to get the lion's share of spotlight, as generally happens. When's the last time we read a high fantasy focused on the grandmother? Which is why, really, I love so much Faey's turn at the end. Her shift in caring is a brilliant, lovely thing. Mystical, magical, super-powered forces of nature have feelings, too. As do grandmas.

Audrey Taylor: I agree (at least in part) with everyone's answers!

I do want to go into a tiny bit more depth about Ombria itself being a character. I think that Erin's "cop-out" at the beginning wasn't any such thing: Ombria is crucial to the story, and does function in many ways as another character (even if it is un-knowable). I would suggest that Ombria is a character in much the same way Gormenghast from the Mervyn Peake novels is. Both places definitely have character, and are vital to the stories they are in, even if they aren't completely knowable. (I could also make an argument that Faey and Ombria are the same, or incarnations of each other—though I'm not completely convinced by that one myself.)

Two other notes: at one point someone (I think it's Lydea) notes that Kyle is the heart of Ombria, and without its heart it will fail (whatever Domina Pearl thinks), thus boosting his importance beyond that of just place holder. And I think it's fairly clear, though perhaps not explicitly stated, that Ducon Greve does love Kyle.

Erin Horáková: I do think we're quite explicitly informed Ducon loves Kyle, but Lydea initially doubts that and distrusts him, and then Ducon's emotions don't get a lot of exploration and explanation in that regard? We're told to be suspicious of him, and then told he just loves Kyle, it's cool—and for me there's a slight strangeness there.

Audrey Taylor: I see your hesitation, but I think Lydea says she mistrusts Ducon (chiefly because she doesn't know him) more than she actually does—at the very beginning of the novel she leaves Kyle with him because she believes him to be safe there.

What is the relationship between image and reality in Ombria in Shadow? Is it affected by the different ways in which the characters see and interact with the world—Ducon's drawings, for instance, or Mag's spying?

Audrey Taylor: In some ways the relationship between image and reality is absolutely vital, and occurs throughout the novel (to the point where I could write a book about it, but I'll restrain myself to a few examples here). The different ways the characters see and interact with their world is part of it, but it's also inherent to Ombria. Because Ombria has its three different "incarnations"—the one the characters move through for most of the book, the Shadow city, and the future/past versions of Ombria—image and reality are at the heart of the book, and can't always be untangled.

Being able to see the reality of Ombria gives characters power. For example, Ducon is drawn to/draws spaces others don't notice. This enables him to know the spaces he travels better than almost anyone, but it also saves his life. The only cure for the poison administered to him through his chalk is Faey (who has created the poison), and even half-dead he is able to stumble into her lair where he can be cured.

Image/reality is also important to the depiction of Domina Pearl. When Mag begins drawing with the special chalk presumably left by her parents, Domina begins to dissolve "into" the paper. This intimates both that Mag's and her locket have more power than expected, but also that Domina Pearl isn't as solid, as human, as she appears. Faey, meanwhile, is so old she doesn't remember her own form, and so "borrows" the images of paintings that hang in her house.

Chris Kammerud: Since this is such a very big question, I will attempt to give an answer terrifically small and specific. The relationship between image and reality in Ombria might also be described as the relationship between what is seen and what is. What is seen here being not simply what is perceived by one's eyes, but also by one's heart. In the character of Mag, we have a young girl, abandoned on the doorstep of a sorceress (Faey), and brought up within the perception Faey has of her as a waxling, as something crafted, as something other than human. Mag behaves in this way, in a sense, allowing what is seen to be what is, but, of course, Mag isn't a waxling, not really: she's human. It's not until she sees herself as human, though, after swallowing a heart, that she begins to act as human. And it's the same with Faey. Once she sees Mag as human, as a daughter, truly, and so the way Faey sees herself changes, well, then, the nature of Faey, what she is, changes as well, and the whole of Ombria with it. In this way, seeing is an action, and the images we have of ourselves and others work to construct the reality of the world.

I think this goes toward what Audrey was saying, as well, about how image and reality are at the heart of Ombria, and maybe at the heart of McKillip's work. A collection of her stories, after all, is called Wonders of the Invisible World. I think in so many of those stories, as in this book, exactly what Audrey mentions plays out. The ability to see different images of reality, to see the reality that is both real and invisible, grants the bearer of this sight the power to transform their world.

What I find fascinating about Ombria, though, and haven't reached the end of thinking about, is that after the city's transformation—from hope to despair, from ruin to rebirth—most of the characters forget what has happened to them, and all that remains is a story, an image of reality that both hides and reveals the truth.

David Hebblethwaite: I think Ombria in Shadow can be seen as a story of image becoming reality (and indeed vice versa). The Shadow City is of course an image of Ombria; the transformation at the end of the book is then an image becoming reality (and, as Chris says, the old reality becoming an image).

Further, mastery over image in the novel often becomes mastery over reality. Ducon's drawings, for example, begin as a way for him and Kyel to communicate, to say things which cannot be spoken out loud—then they become the means for Ducon to unlock reality, and discover his father. To echo Chris's point, Mag is herself an "image" when she thinks she's a waxling; when she learns that she is human, she becomes "real".

We might also see pairs of characters as opposites in how they relate to image/reality: Mag moves away from being an image, where Lydea longs for the old image of who and what she was as the ruler's mistress. Domina Pearl seeks to stay awake during the transformation of Ombria and thereby gain control over reality; contrast with Faey, who has retreated into image, constantly changing her appearance.

Erin Horáková: I'd like to echo Chris's point on the importance of perception. The novel does work with self-perception/others perceiving you. Lydea's transformation into Mistress Thorn is like an externally imposed Holmesian disguise—it's not so much a mask/disguise as it's a matter of how she holds herself, a matter of how others see her. Lydea's changing interaction with the parts of the palace she sees, how well she sees Ducon, are also in play here.

In a way maybe this is faux-Renaissance fantasy that's actually invested in the issues that charge a lot of Renaissance thinking and production—"the perception of others" is a big theme in early modern court poetry etc. A lot of people are drawn to these settings but not so much to the social currents that comprise them. Which itself raises the "medieval reception" question of what use revisiters want to make of these eras. "Renaissance" is a strange concept re: this book—you have what seems to be a sort of Venetian or Renaissance city, but unlike that highly historically situated polis, Ombria is ancient and forever as is, and yet blatantly engaged in literal rebirths?

Also, Lydea is so conscious of, or maybe so worried about, changing—no longer being beautiful, being irrevocably ruined by contact with her old life, or with hardship. You could definitely talk about class/gender with respect to how the novel wants to talk about the impermanence/fragility of Lydea's beauty. And it's not just her: Ducon likewise thinks that if she's survived, she'll be unrecognizable. This current waxes and wanes throughout the novel, but it's startling how impermanent people feel themselves to be, how in flux, how incapable of arresting themselves at a point or of returning to a station they formerly occupied. This of course contrasts with Domina Pearl's fixity, Faey's temporally confused mode of life, and the changeless-changing city itself. I kind of fundamentally don't believe there are places in this world outside of Ombria—how do other, "rational" empires deal with this city? How does time?

Audrey Taylor: I would largely agree with Chris's overall point that the book is about the difference between what is and what is seen (especially with his excellent example of Mag). I would quibble, however, with the point about Faey. Although Faey's newfound ability to love is vital I don't think love=daughter in this instance. Faey's inhumanity is important, and she remains inhuman to the end, in spite of her learning to love. I'm not sure I'm convinced that Faey has changed how she sees Mag either, she has simply come to care for her. After all, Faey is the one that found Mag as a human baby, she has known all along what she is, it just suited her to have Mag be as blank and pliant as wax. She has watched Mag's "awakening" too, and knows that she is beginning to venture out and think of herself as human.

I'd also like to briefly touch on Chris's point about the characters forgetting what has happened to them. My theory is that amnesia was vital to healing. Such despair and fear has come before the change that all the characters would have been emotionally (and perhaps physically) marked by it. In order to have a truly fresh start, one unmarked (and crucially uninfluenced) by terror and despair, they couldn't remember what had happened to them. They are all at their breaking points at the end; Lydea has leaped with the young prince to what might be their death, for example. They could not have come back from the trauma to lead the ordinary lives necessary for renewal.

I think Erin's point about perception is spot on—Mistress Thorn is an excellent example. I'm not convinced that there needs to be a reason to revisit certain eras though (at least in fantasy); if she wanted McKillip could have written a historical novel, but she chose not to. I also agree that Ombria seems a world unto itself (aside from trade mentioned). I'm not sure it's important that there be anything besides Ombria.

Erin Horáková: Re: characters forgetting what's happened to them and amnesia as healing—we of course smack into the body of Freudian thought about memory and trauma, which is suspicious of people's ability to ever actually un-know things that have happened to them, and which prioritizes reckoning with trauma. I supposed we could say: well here is a magical un-knowing that circumvents those limitations and allows for a type of healing we can crave in real life, but have no ability to access. Which is compelling, but then we have to deal with Ombria and the Return of the Repressed, in a sense? The re-rupture, the next cycle, is inevitable, if not for these people then for people very like them/Ombria. The sense the end of the novel gives me is not of the world washed totally clean. I, the reader, know The Truth (to the extent that it IS still true) about what happened—I remember for the characters. The characters themselves feel fragile, as though they could remember at any moment (and some of them remember for each other—Faey and Mag, in the centre and protected from the change, know everything that happened, don't they?). The city remembers, à la the fan story—though perhaps curiously I don't have any strong sense of what the changes before this change might have been. In the core narrative, the prince's tutor knows Something Happened several times in the past, and in an ideal amnesiac healing, could you see the seam?

Audrey Taylor: I agree that the world isn't totally washed clean—Mag (at least sort of) knows what has happened, and all the interesting bits and pieces of forgotten Ombria around the city wouldn't exist if there had been a clean break each time, but I think this is one of the compelling bits of the story—that it isn't clean. The magic that changes the city is unpredictable, and though very powerful, not precisely controlled.

Perhaps amnesia isn't the right term; perhaps a memory block? One that could potentially be removed in future? Although I don't think so, I think they'll integrate any previous memories that might surface into their current reality (that's the sense I get). It certainly isn't a neat ending, and is somewhat problematic (as nearly all McKillip's endings are—she seems to have trouble with them).

Erin Horáková: Diana Wynne Jones also writes consistently "unsatisfying" endings (unhappy, or unconventionally loose—though I've heard her messy endings argued for as a virtue in their own right), and I gave a paper a bit ago about her using magical forgetting to interrupt a father-son trauma cycle in the Chrestomanci series—maybe fantasy (or perhaps just these/certain examples of it, if we don't want to push so far) has a unique ability to enact our yearning for forgetting trauma.

Audrey Taylor: Jones's endings to me are unsatisfying but deliberate (which I quite like even though I'm not generally a fan of unhappy endings—The Homeward Bounders is a tremendous example). Sometimes McKillip's endings feel as though there's too many loose ends and she's unsure which to tie together and which to leave loose. But I do like this notion that some fantasy allows us the peace of forgetting.

To what extent is the book entropic? To what extent is the ending a eucatastrophe? What does the ending say about how we handle despair?

Chris Kammerud: After looking up the word "eucatastrophe" and confirming it didn't refer to the collapse of the European Union, but was instead a word perhaps coined by Tolkien in reference to those endings which end suddenly and happily, I wrote myself into a few short circles in which it seemed to me like Ombria might be both eucatastrophic and entropic. And also, not at all. This is what my brain often does.

Here's a shortened version of those thoughts.

An entropic system is one wherein things tend towards disorder. This seems to be, and not be, the case for Ombria. It is entropic in that things are always already, in one Ombria or another (remembering there are always, at least, two, the twin cities—one the shadow of the other) heading towards despair. But! Since, so far as we know, there are these twin cities, and if one heads toward disorder, the other must necessarily head towards order, and once they reach their apex, they collide, and disorder and order are brought, once again, into balance. Which would seem to be the opposite of entropic and more, um, yin-yangic, that the universe is composed of equal and opposite forces that push and pull but always, forever, must remain, must return, to balance.

Then again, if we take Faey and Domina Pearl to be people, and not metaphors for universal forces, perhaps we could say that Ombria is entropic in so much as some conscious force, some energy, must be put into the system in order to maintain its balance—otherwise, all to chaos.

Eucatastrophic the ending seems, because the wicked regent falls to pieces and everyone seems happy and safe and not dead that demonstrated themselves to be good—but, perhaps it's less happy because based on how the world works, there's one thing that prevents the ending being totally eucatastrophy, which is that we know that this happiness, too, will fall to despair, if not now, then someday, because that's what always happens in the world of Ombria. There is no ever after for happiness or despair, there is no single order that lasts, but instead, competing, contradictory orders, that exist simultaneously, one the shadow of the other, neither existing without the other close by, neither being ascendant forever before or after.

The transformations back and forth remind me of that toy, the drinking bird, that tips and falls into a glass of water, drinks for a while, then bounces back up, only to fall again.

Oh! And what does it say about how we handle despair? I think, if the book is dealing with loss—of family, of self, of a certain way of seeing the world—literally and figuratively, then the ending doesn't seem like amnesia so much as just the way the past falls away from us, however much we remember, as though it happened to other people. For some people, maybe, they do remember the past, it does stay with them, and so someone like Mag, the past remains always present, and for others, maybe for most, the trauma that happens to them, that transforms them, somehow falls away, and what's left is who they are now, and the details of what made them get washed away into a narrative that serve their current identity, rather than anything true of the past.

David Hebblethwaite: Hmm. . . I think the ending will generate a different response from each reader, because so much depends on where you stand—for example, on whether you view the enforced amnesia (and I do read it as amnesia, though Chris's point is intriguing) as a good or bad thing. Of course memory wipe is a venerable tool in the fantasy kit, and generally speaking I'd see it as a bad thing to happen to a character. But Ombria in Shadow may suggest otherwise—to go back to a point Audrey made, the characters have been through so much that maybe not being able to remember it all is actually for the best. Then again, you could argue that there's intrinsic horror in characters not remembering their past or knowing what they've lost.

For me there's also a tension between the artificiality of Ombria and the ending's capacity to carry an emotional charge. As we've suggested above, Ombria doesn't (couldn't) really work as a place; so, arguably at least, the characters could never be individuals living "real" lives. In that case, does the constant cycle of transformation in Ombria mean much at all? Again, I think it's going to be down to each individual reader.

Audrey Taylor: My short answer to the entropic question is, "No it isn't, because it is able to restart itself and entropy ends in chaotic death," but Chris's answer is so much more nuanced that I'll leave it at that.

I quite like the idea of Ombria's change as a time of the carnivalesque. Disorder rules in a period of time, authority is questioned and turned upside down, and in the end things return to normal (albeit a better reality).

Eucatastrophe is an intriguing way of looking at the ending, and one that I hadn't considered. I think I partly agree, but I'm not sure I'm totally convinced. The way that Tolkien used it in practice wasn't necessarily of a happy ending, but of an ending that gave joy because of its shedding light on Truth. In some ways Ombria does this, the "truth" is explored at last (at least for the reader), but whether that gives light to a more universal Truth, and therefore the joy Tolkien was looking for, I'm not sure. (I'm not implying Tolkien wouldn't have liked Ombria, merely that I'm not sure it exactly fits into this definition). I like Chris's response, especially as it's totally different from my initial thoughts, but I'm not sure either of us has gotten it right. I'll be interested to hear what Erin has to say about eucatastrophe.

Erin Horáková: I think the core of my sense of the eucatastrophe involves a positive version of that familiar catastrophic build (think the inverse of Greek tragedy, tragic flaws, etc.). To a lesser extent, I think the eucatastrophe coming when hope's lost/when it looks like doom's fairly certain is important to my understanding of the term. So I guess the way the novel builds towards the end of the world but then the wheel spins and lands on "best of all possible reboots, everybody (but the old Duke) lives!" functionally accomplishes that. Whether this works for you will perhaps depend, as David suggests, on the degree to which you're invested in the characters, and on the degree to which you're comfortable with and willing to buy into/critical of happy endings. (The differences in critical legitimacy offered to happy and sad endings could be a whole other discussion.)

Entropy isn't really a concept that organizes my thinking about the novel, because Ombria is so defined by systems, and I never get a sense of its tending to disorder, per se. Change, certainly! I mean maybe in the background some of the power-structures collapse around Domina Pearl (she kills a few nobles and dismisses some councillors), but she largely occupies these structures rather than melting them away. Her actions aren't really chaotic: she's always pursuing her plan. The common people grumble, they don't riot and burn down the palace.

Despair is also difficult because—I don't really think these characters are in despair? We've spoken of how much they've gone through, how much they could benefit from a form of forgetting, but—how bad's it been? We're hardly in Game of Thrones or RL!trauma territory. How f*ed up are Mag and Ducon now? Lydea never seems that much in the grip of despair about her dead lover, and while she was worried about Kyle, I don't necessarily feel her panicked plunge into the unknown was suicidal—or if it was, that despair was super-behind that decision. She was fairly sure something would be there on the other side, and she didn't have better options. Are we buying into the emotional equivalent of Lydea's worry that she's been forever changed/ruined by contact with her old life, and if so isn't that kind of scary re: Abigail Nussbaum's essay about how fiction treats survivors? The reboot!versions of the characters also seem to keep many of the gains of the wiped!past. Lydea's father has forgiven her and grown the hell up, for one. I think there are two questions here: 1) is this really a lot of material or a lot of /traumatic material/ to process, and 2) does the novel model methods of interacting with/overcoming despair? I kind of want to say . . . no and no.

Chris Kammerud: Erin, I think you're right about how despair functions, or doesn't. The characters seem, for the most part, fairly capable at dealing with their losses. They may feel sadness, but they don't succumb to despair. Also, the fact that the characters retain many of the gains from their wiped past is one reason I think it's not a matter of looking at the end as a forced, or unforced amnesia, so much as perhaps McKillip's model of growing and changing.

Audrey Taylor: I'm intrigued by your rejection of entropy, Erin. I have to agree with your analysis, but I still feel there is something chaotic about Ombria, and the ending of the book. How some doorways lead where they are meant to and others . . . don't. How none of the characters really know what is happening, it doesn't feel logical (and perhaps you are right in that this doesn't necessarily equal chaos), but I can't help but feel that there is an air of chaos, just as I would argue there is an air of despair. Certainly there aren't Game of Thrones levels, but I'm not convinced by that bar. Game of Thrones is despair and violence on a whole other plane from McKillip; if you take Ombria within itself, I feel that the characters are in despair, are feeling desperate and hunted (as evidenced by many of the running scenes, and scenes of tension within court and town). When Lydea jumps off the tower she thinks there might be something different waiting, but she doesn't know, and that's a huge difference when you're carrying a child you love. To me her actions speak of nothing but desperation. I don't think it has anything to do with Lydea's discomfiture of finding herself in a new life, that is uncomfortable, but her feelings of despair come from not knowing how Kyle is. If it was just the break from her old life, she wouldn't have risked going back under Domina Pearl's nose as Mistress Thorn (not to mention—the fact that she used to bite her nails to the quick indicates some tension with her previous life in the palace too). I think that within the world of Ombria this absolutely is a chaotic, despair filled time, and that this was McKillip's intention. I will agree, however, that it doesn't provide realistic ways of dealing with despair (but I'm not sure it sets out to do that . . . ).

Erin Horáková: Perhaps we're into some fine distinctions. I think about entropy somewhat differently than I think about chaos. Lydea certainly comes back to the palace out of concern for Kyle, and she is certainly very worried about him. Everyone is tense, and in the chase sequence Lydea makes a wild decision. But despair's not the specific emotional response I'd go with to describe the gestalt of those feelings and the book's atmosphere? And perhaps part of that is way the text describes emotional states. One might be inclined to call the prose purple, but if you look at it, the dialogue's actually pretty succinct. I think there's a similar—restraint, or distance/opacity, to McKillip's descriptions of the characters' emotional responses. I don't necessarily think the book aims to cover, or needs to cover the territory of despair in any way, just that, even within itself (though I think intertextual literary referents can be productively brought to bear here), I don't necessarily see this book as a depiction of trauma and extreme emotional response. Which could be tied to the work the novel does with shadows and reflections, and perhaps the difficulty of reconciling multiple (competing?) narratives with deep emotional involvement (which could be predicated on our prestiging a singular narrative as real and vital?). That would, I guess, be a product of the work's handling of alternatives and its project/the effects it wants to generate, rather than innate to literary situations with multiple Reals. I mean this is not how I read other texts with multiple Reals, and not really my preferred understanding of the concept/such works generally.

Audrey Taylor: As a closing comment, may I make a few suggestions if anyone was sufficiently intrigued by Ombria in Shadow to want to read more McKillip? If you liked the fairytale element: try Winter Rose, The Forests of Serre, or The Tower at Stony Wood, if you liked the intrigue try Song for the Basilisk (or The Tower at Stony Wood), and if you, or people you know, are into more Tolkien-esque fantasy, The Riddle-master Trilogy or The Forgotten Beasts of Eld are a good start. Also, if you prefer short stories, the collection Wonders of the Invisible World is excellent—but not typical McKillip.

For further discussion:

  • How has the novel's reception changed since 2002? Beyond a simple badge of quality, what do we make of its "Masterwork" status?
  • How would you describe McKillip's style? Which aspects of her style are more (or less) effective? How does she use dialogue? How does she use sensual or sensory information?
  • In what ways is Ombria in Shadow a fairytale narrative? What—if any—narrative expectations are subverted?
  • How do you see Faey and Domina Pearl, as characters, as women, and as forces within the novel? How does their relationship and conflict shape the narrative?
  • Ombria in Shadow is a novel centred around a political event in which the wider political world barely seems to exist (or at least is overshadowed by Ombria's poetic and emotional realities). Can we view the city's transformation as a magical form of revolution, or is such a reading undercut by the way Domina Pearl seeks to cause and use the transformation for her own gain? Is the novel fighting against its own political grain?

Audrey Taylor is finishing a PhD at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge on McKillip’s secondary-world fantasies.
Chris Kammerud’s fiction and nonfiction has appeared in Bourbon Penn, Phantom DriftInterfictions, and multiple times in Strange Horizons. He produces and co-hosts the short story discussion podcast Storyological. He is a graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, and he holds an MFA from the University of Mississippi, where he studied as a Grisham Fellow. He lives in London with his partner. You can find him online at @cuvols or
David Hebblethwaite was born in the north of England, went to university in the Midlands, and now lives in the south. He has reviewed for various venues, including Vector, The Zone, Fiction Uncovered, and We Love This Book. He blogs at Follow the Thread.
Erin Horáková is a southern American writer who lives in London. She's working towards her literature PhD, which focuses on how charm evolves over time.
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