Tragedy has always been with us, though it is something closer to our hearts in the past year. Whether a tragedy is shared or personal in nature, it forces us to deal with grief and to face the difficult task of moving forward with our lives. Thus tragedy becomes not just a terrible event but a struggle, in which one can find moments of human transcendence. This nexus point of shadow and light -- tragedy and transcendence -- is the centerpiece of Patricia McKillip's brilliant new fantasy novel, Ombria in Shadow.
In Ombria in Shadow McKillip interweaves the finer aspects of the fairy tale and the Gothic to evoke a sense of catharsis. Fairy tale pacing and characters are balanced carefully against the darker aspects of the Gothic setting to produce wonder, fear, and -- in the end -- renewed hope that the world not only can, but will, be a better place tomorrow. McKillip's rich mix of deft characterization, adept world building, and artistic prose forms a magnificent tapestry.
Ombria is a city in decline ruled by the House of Greve and its current Prince, Royce Greve. Once a great and powerful trading center, its fortunes have fallen, and along with them, the hopes of its people. Around every corner is an abandoned inn, storefront or home; in every building is a sign of decay and impending collapse. Pirates have driven the port almost out of business. Its people are sinking into despondency. And the members of the House of Greve and the other nobles of the city are ill-prepared for the death of Royce. The heir, Kyel, is a child, and the woman who will be his Regent is an unnaturally old and power hungry woman of the House of Greve, Domina Pearl.
Like all great Gothic places, Ombria is also a city of secrets, both emotional and physical. From the title's clear connections to the Latin "umbra" (meaning shade, shadow) the reader is instantly inspired to think of the interplay of light and darkness, of shadows. Beneath the city of Ombria is an almost deserted undercity, complete with mansions, riverwalks, and ghosts. This undercity is home to Faey, a sorceress older than the city itself, and her young apprentice Mag, who may be a creation of Faey or an orphaned human child. Those who need Faey's help find their way to her through deserted storefronts and abandoned stairways, and she helps all comers, even when it means casting enchantments for both sides in a conflict.
Perhaps the greatest secret in Ombria is the legend of the shadow city. Lydea, Royce's mistress, describes the shadow city to Kyel during a storytelling session before the death of his father.
"The shadow city of Ombria is as old as Ombria. Some say it is a different city completely, existing side by side with Ombria in a time so close to us that there are places -- streets, gates, old houses -- where one time fades into the other, one city becomes the other."
But the shadow city may be more than a fairy tale, and a shift between Ombria and its shadow self may be coming, caused by some special event that even those most fascinated by the legend cannot fathom through all their research.
McKillip has peopled this fascinating world of Ombria with a wealth of strong characters. Domina Pearl, called the Black Pearl, is a complex and thoroughly frightening villain, embodying the dark power of grief to control us and hold us back in difficult times. She is the very essence of lifelessness, always present and waiting to take over. An early description paints a vivid portrait of the villainess.
"She did not so much look old as emanate age, like a musty puff of air, or bone-creakings too slow to be heard. Her hair had been dyed black for as long as anyone had been around to remember; no one alive remembered a time without her." -- "Her eyes were cold barren moons."
The descriptions of Domina, whose very name suggests domination and power over others, continue in this way throughout the book, growing darker and more terrifying as her secrets are revealed and her grip tightens. She saps the will of those around her, wiping out hope and engendering expectations of darker days to come for the city and its people. This personification of tragedy, its powerful grip, and its diminishing of hope, adds a dark quality to the fairy tale aspects of Ombria in Shadow.
McKillip's use of fairy tale characters does not end with the villainous Domina. Arrayed against her are a number of the genre's traditional archetypes. Ducon Greve is a bastard son of the old Prince's sister, a prodigal son, an artist, and a man haunted by his missing father. His name, possibly drawn from the Latin "duco" -- a word with many meanings including "to draw or shape" and "to lead" and "to delay" -- embodies his role in the story. He is adrift, delayed in finding a path for himself, spending his time drawing forgotten doorways and abandoned places. His art, sketches in charcoal (an art form that seems entirely appropriate in this story with its many references to the interplay of light and shadow), plays a crucial role in the story, and his growth provides the story's soulful center. Beside him stands Lydea, the dead Prince's mistress, a former tavern girl who was found and loved by the wealthy Prince. Her time as a royal mistress has drawn her apart from her common past, but leaves her with no place upon the Prince's death. While we do not see her journey from tavern girl to royal mistress, we see the shadowed opposite as she falls from mistress back to tavern girl. Her struggle in the face of Royce's death and her banishment from the palace is at the heart of the story.
The wild cards in the struggle between Domina and those protecting Kyel are the sorceress Faey and her assistant Mag. Mag -- with a name that brings to mind magic -- has a mysterious past she longs to understand. Her origins are shrouded, and she is both protected and sheltered from knowledge by Faey. While she has served without question as Faey's apprentice for years, she begins to question the amoral nature of Faey's work as she moves more and more in the world of the upper city. She serves as the thread that weaves the upper world and the undercity together, and she forces Faey to realize that there may be things worth struggling to achieve. For her part, Faey, the mistress of the haunted undercity and the holder of secrets (reminiscent of the denizens of faery who rule places just beyond the veil of normal vision and who know secrets about our own world), is awakened emotionally by Mag's struggles.
The state of Ombria mirrors, in many ways, the state of the central characters, who are dealing with the loss of Royce Greve, and their transformations are as remarkable as the legendary transformation of the city. Lydea, who loses everything when Royce dies, is transformed from a somewhat vacuous and flighty shop girl to someone confident in herself and her actions. Disguised by Faey's magic, she becomes almost unrecognizable, both physically and emotionally, when she fights to protect young Kyel as a young tutor's assistant, Miss Thorn. Ducon describes her after meeting Miss Thorn:
"It's not," he commented slowly, walking a circle around her, "so much that your face has changed. It's what meets the eye in that first glance at you. Some one poised and very proper, sure of her place in the world, calm and unassailable."
Like Lydea, Ducon himself is transformed by his grief and his encounters with Domina Pearl. As the conflict between Domina Pearl and the young Prince Kyel and his supporters grows, it brings Ombria to the brink of either doom or rebirth and provides Ducon with the opportunity to choose direction for his own life.
While both the setting and the characters are fascinating, it is the emotional depth of the story that elevates Ombria in Shadow to spectacular heights. As we watch the characters face the tragedy of Royce's death, we are reminded that, like them, we are capable of heroism and strength even in the darkest of times. Lydea grows in the crucible of her lover's death, while Ducon finds the courage to stand firm in the face of difficult decisions.
Ombria in Shadow's final chapter, appropriately titled "Ever After," provides a glimpse of another Ombria that has suffered the death of Royce Greve and must -- without magic, and as if the previous twenty three chapters had not occurred -- discover if the capacity to move forward and look to its own future is within. This final chapter, a beautiful counterpoint to the book's opening chapter, makes McKillip's thoughts on our capacity to survive and grow from tragedy clear.
McKillip, in Ombria in Shadow, has combined elements of the Gothic with those of traditional fairy tales to create something that transcends them both. It is a story that will resonate with a readership more aware of the potential for tragedy in the world, and will hopefully give strength in a troubled time.
Rob Gates is the editor of Wavelengths, a review journal for genre works of special interest to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people. He is also the author of a story appearing in Bubbas of the Apocalypse from Yard Dog Press.