Sunday, December 1, 2019

Review: Summer in Orcus by T. Kingfisher

Summer in Orcus by T. Kingfisher
Published: Sofawolf Press (2017), Red Wombat (2016)
Awards Nominated: Lodestar Award for Best YA Novel

The Book:

When the witch Baba Yaga walks her house into the backyard, eleven-year-old Summer enters into a bargain for her heart's desire. Her search will take her to the strange, surreal world of Orcus, where birds talk, women change their shape, and frogs sometimes grow on trees. But underneath the whimsy of Orcus lies a persistent darkness, and Summer finds herself hunted by the monstrous Houndbreaker, who serves the distant, mysterious Queen-in-Chains…” ~Red Wombat

This one was free (link above) and up for the Lodestar Award, so I thought I’d give it a try.  I didn’t realize T. Kingfisher was an alternate name for Ursula Vernon until after I’d read it.  I’ve enjoyed some of her short fiction, too.

My Thoughts:

Summer in Orcus is a traditional portal fantasy with some unusual elements, targeting a middle grade to young adult audience.  I’d recommend it for people who like Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland series (and vice versa), since I feel like they both have the same kind of whimsical fantasy with more serious themes running throughout.  In this case, the real-world themes involve Summer’s relationship with her mother, who struggles with allowing her anxiety to limit her young daughter’s life.  Summer loves her mother, but also feels like maybe it would be alright if she had some adventures. Her mother’s anxiety shapes the way Summer views herself and the world around her, conflicting with her desire to explore and experience.

Summer’s ambitions in her secondary world are more modest than I expected.  She doesn’t think of herself as a girl who could save the world, but she does hope that she might save something-- in this case, a magical tree that sprouts frogs. In pursuit of this and her heart’s desire, she ends up gathering a small party of allied fantastical creatures. She wanders from odd situation to situation, and her only assurance that she’s on the right track is the occasional presence of a particular color (which reminds me of hiking trails).  Her path is not without resistance, though, and when she does meet with violence, it is abrupt and terrifying. In general, bad things in Orcus have a particular kind of weary, despairing, cynical darkness that I have not often seen in works targeting younger readers. Anyway, Summer’s journey does have an eventual destination, and I thought it wrapped up her personal arc well.

My Rating: 3.5 /5 

Summer in Orcus is a young adult/middle grade portal fantasy that I would recommend to fans of Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland series.  The fantasy land, Orcus, is full of interesting and quirky supernatural creatures and lands, and the heroine, Summer, feels authentic to me as a child protagonist. She enters Orcus with fairly modest goals, carrying with her the influences of her mother’s struggle with anxiety.  She may not be a warrior or a hero, but she has her own journey to travel, and her own heart’s desire to find. Summer’s story feels very episodic at times, but I thought it came to a good resolution in the end.

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