Mag never told Faey that she knew she was other than made. Human being what it was -- raging, messy, cruel, drunken and stupid -- she decided to remain wax. If, she reasoned, she did not say the word, no one would ever know. Saying 'human' would make her so. (p.20)
Ombria is a bright city sparkling with the decadent seeds of its own downfall. Its Prince is dying and Domina Pearl, the malevolent Regent, sets courtier against courtier and banishes the Prince's mistress Lydea to the streets from whence she came. Beneath those streets lies the city's own shadow, a maze of forgotten alleyways, disused cellars, sunken houses and gardens buried beneath dead leaves. The undercity is the realm of Faey the sorceress, who has a thousand faces and sells her magic to whoever might buy. Her waxling, Mag -- who Faey makes out to be a made thing, a magical construct, but a spell goes astray and Mag discovers the truth -- runs Faey's errands, slipping through Ombria's streets, watching and reporting and helping those who Faey makes her business. Among those she watches are Ducon Greve, the dead Prince's bastard nephew; Kyel, the young heir, who misses his friend Lydea; and Kyel's tutor Camas Erl, who's fascinated by the legends of a catastrophe that will transform Ombria from a city of despair and fear into something light and full of hope.
McKillip's prose often feels, to me, like a medieval tapestry, rich with colour and detail and odd, precise glimpses of magic. (The mirrors in Faey's sanctum are old, 'overused, shadowy with images'. Outside the palace gates, a garden of sunflowers stands guard.) Ombria in Shadow is beautifully written, and the protagonists rounded and realistic, heartsore with grief but not incapable of action. Despite the urban setting and the convolutions of shadow and light, the ambience of this novel brings to mind McKillip's Riddlemaster trilogy in ways that some of her more recent fantasy novels don't: perhaps it's the comfortable and credible quasi-medieval setting, without much overt magic, where characters are as likely to do laundry or visit a brothel as they are to cast spells or fight enemies.
The ending, which I shan't spoil here, felt sudden and hollow on first reading, but on reflection I find it wholly satisfactory. I'd love to encounter these characters again.