I was excited to try my first McKillip book, and was hooked by the beginning, but this turned into a rather frustrating read.
The city-state of Ombria is in decline, made worse when its prince suddenly dies and the sinister, seemingly-immortal Domina Pearl takes over as regent for the five-year-old heir, Kyel. And.... well, the plot is what frustrated me about this book. The writing has a dreamlike quality, and the story didn’t seem to be moving toward the obvious confrontation, and I got impatient and wondered what the point was. Looking back, I think it’s a good book that I just didn’t read with the right mindset, but it’s still hard to say much about the plot. But this doesn't mean I thought it was a bad book--it's the kind of book that would probably be better on a re-read.
So the characters, then. Most of the main characters are interesting and sympathetic--I liked Mag, Ducon and even Kyel (and that’s saying something because usually I don’t care for very young children in books). McKillip makes the interesting choice to emphasize child-caretaker bonds and pulls it off well; the relationships are sweet. The one main character I didn’t think much of was Lydea, the dead prince’s mistress, who turns out to be generic and dull; fortunately though, we get a more unique heroine in Mag.
The writing is good, and McKillip does a great job with the atmosphere. The book has a sort of misty fairytale quality that isn’t my preference (I like realism and precision in my fantasy), but it’s so well-done that it’s hard to criticize. And Ombria may not follow logical rules, but it’s a fascinating idea.
So, if I were to rate this book purely based on my level of enjoyment while reading it, I’d have to give 3 stars, but 4 better reflects its actual quality. I plan to pick up another McKillip book one of these days, when I’m in the right mood, and see if that works out better.