Ombria in Shadow by Patricia A. Mckillip (2002)
Ombria, a royal city with a shadowy, parallel underworld. A city of hidden streets, a palace of mysterious doors, a royal family riddled with deadly secrets, but the secret of the Regent's power is the darkest of all...
When the ruling prince of Ombria dies in suspicious circumstances, his five-year-old heir to the throne is taken charge of by his Regent aunt – a fearsome woman – some call her a pirate queen, some say a witch, but everyone agrees, she is not a woman to be messed with. It's easy to say who the villain of Ombria is, but I would be hard-pressed to say which protagonist the story belongs to – it could be Mag, a young sorceress’s apprentice, or it could be Ducon, the illegitimate nephew of the late prince. Perhaps it’s neither, and the story belongs to Ombria.
Ducon, in the above-ground world, spends his days trying to avoid being dragged into deadly plots of rebellion, while carrying about charcoal and paper to draw places that no one else can see. Meanwhile, Mag, in the hidden underground world, meddles with her mistress’s death-spells if she thinks a life is worth saving. History and magic weave together as Ducon and Mag cross paths, sharing the need to discover their true history, their real identity, and to save the young princeling from his aunt's destruction. They must cross invisible boundaries of time and memory, shadow and light, illusions and ghosts. They will navigate worlds of conspiracies and danger in their struggle for freedom.
The world building in this story is masterful. I loved the secret doors between worlds and portals between time. But I also loved the characters and their relationships: the tavern keeper’s daughter, violently displaced as the mistress of the late prince; the child prince, whose life is in danger; Mag, who is not sure if she is human or a creation of her powerful sorceress-mistress; Faey the sorceress, callous and amoral, but who's surprised to find that she has a heart after all, and Ducon, noble and kind, but in denial as to his call as a hero. Can these characters work together to save those they love and to rescue Ombria from the tyranny of the Regent witch?
This is a remarkable work of imagination, with an eccentric but satisfying ending, though I would have liked to know a little more of what happened next. Mckillip’s style is poetic and lyrical. She creates a rich, unsettling world that keeps you wondering and guessing and never quite sure what’s around the corner or what will happen next. There’s a dreaminess to the fantasy, yet you have to pay attention, as the plot is not always spelled out, but given in clues and mysterious glimpses. Mckillip gives you all the clues you need, but you must put them together, and sometimes they only click with hindsight. There’s a lot of delicious wry humour in the characters, especially from Faey, the wildly eccentric sorceress, who changes her face to suit her mood, and from Mag, the plucky young heroine.
My only complaint about this wonderful story is that the publishers have changed the cover art, and it's hard to track down a copy with the original and utterly gorgeous Kinuko Y Craft artwork – what were they thinking of? Craft and Mckillip belong together! You'll see that I've included the Craft cover above.