Hidden Sun by Jaine Fenn

Hidden Sun: Shadowlands Book I by Jaine Fenn -- A woman in a yellow dress and wide-brimmed hat stands in front of a pinkish-purple sky, aside a river and several tall groupings of buildings

[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 29 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]

Rhia looked up, and listened. Distant chanting drifted in through the study window but the house itself was silent. Probably just one of the cats, knocking something over downstairs. She pulled the lamp closer and bent over her workbench again. The second lens was a tight fit but she mustn’t force it. A smear on the inner surface of the glass now would be damned hard to clean off later. Her motions slow and careful, she eased the lens into the cradle of leather straps. The lens dropped into place, and there it was: her sightglass, complete.

That’s the beginning of Hidden Sun, by Jaine Fenn, which I read when Hugo nomination time rolled around earlier this year. After I caught up on my short fiction reading, I decided to dive into some eligible novels, hoping to find something worthy of adding to my ballot, and golly gee whillickers, did I hit the jackpot with this one. I’d read some good books early this year, but this was the first in a while that I couldn’t stop thinking about when I wasn’t reading it. I looked forward to the end of the workday so I could go home and read some more.

A big reason for this is the world-building. Rhia lives in Shen, one of several dozen “shadowlands”, where the shadowkin live and work. Outside the shadowlands, in the dangerously hot-and-bright skyland, only the skykin can survive. These races used to be one-and-the-same, but they split apart during some cataclysmic event thousands of years ago.

So already, I was hooked. I’m always fascinated by mysterious long-ago history, especially when it clearly informs the present. In this case, that’s how this world’s history led to the internal politics of Shen, the external politics between Shen and other shadowlands, and the relations between the shadowkin and skykin. I won’t say too much more about this because I so enjoyed slowly learning about this world. I’d hate to cheat you out of that journey of discovery.

The other big reason I couldn’t put this book down was the plot. A book cannot survive upon world-building alone, and Hidden Sun delivers on both fronts. Rhia is a noble and a mostly-secret scientist in a land where religion tends to reign supreme. As you can see from the opening of the book, she has just invented a basic telescope and is excited to make astronomical observations to add to the knowledge of the network of “natural enquirers”. Before she can even get started, she’s swept up in an adventure—she must travel to another shadowland to search for her missing brother who may or may not have committed a terrible crime before fleeing Shen.

Finding her brother is also important because as the sole heir to her household, if he doesn’t return she might have to get married, produce an heir, and possibly even stop her scientific observances.

Meanwhile, in another part of Shen, Dej, an adolescent skykin, is being raised in what is basically a school/orphanage. All young skykin are raised in shadowland creches until they’re old enough to undergo the mysterious process that allows them to live in the skylands. Dej is a rebel and a thief and thoroughly unapologetic about it. Her adventure starts when she’s sent away to become an adult far sooner than anyone expects, and things don’t go as well as she’d hoped—though maybe they’re not as bad as she feared?

The book mostly alternates chapters between these two characters, which is another part of why I felt mildly addicted to it. Fenn does a marvelous job of leaving you wanting more at the end of a chapter, so you dive right into the next one—at first, you want to get through it so you can find out what happens next to Rhia, only to be swept up in Dej’s story within a few lines. Then lather, rinse, repeat.

There’s also a third POV character—a priest in another shadowland, who is working on some experiments that don’t seem altogether on the up-and-up. They involve dead bodies, so…you know…creepy! He’s a smaller part of the story, but his tale becomes increasingly important as the other two narrative threads weave their way across the world.

I sort of assumed (and hoped) those threads would eventually come together, and I was not disappointed. Especially since the way they came together was A) not what I expected and B) emotionally satisfying.

Speaking of emotionally satisfying, the end of this book is certainly that, but this is the first book in a series so things are not entirely resolved. I pre-ordered Broken Shadow, the next book in the series, as soon as I finished Hidden Sun. Good news for you readers, I procrastinated so long on posting this, Broken Shadow is now available! So go forth and read!

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Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky -- A green planet above a space ship on a background of stars

[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 26 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]

Just a Barrel of Monkeys: There were no windows in the Brin 2 facility–rotation meant that “outside” was always “down,” underfoot, out of mind. The wall screens told a pleasant fiction, a composite view of the world below that ignored their constant spin, showing off the planet as hanging stationary-still off in space: the green marble to match the blue marble of home, twenty light years away.

That’s the beginning of Children of Time, by Adrian Tchaikovsky. I generally like to start with a positive or a reason to read the book I’m talking about, but this time I’m starting with a warning: If you’re an arachnaphobe, I’m gonna recommend you don’t read this one because, while the opening lines might not make it clear, spiders are a huge part of this novel. In fact, *huge* spiders are a huge part of this novel.

But so are humans. The first section of the book takes place in the far future—humans have colonized many parts of the solar system and are terraforming planets in other star systems. Dr. Avrana Kern is going beyond mere terraforming, however. She’s developed a virus that will hasten the evolution and technological development of the monkeys that will be let loose on this newly-terraformed world.

Of course things don’t go to plan, and the monkeys die. But the virus remains.

Cut to many thousands of years later. Earth’s great empire has fallen and risen again, only to witness the end of Earth’s viability as a home for humans. Some of the last vestiges of the species have set off in suspension chambers on a ship called the Gilgamesh to search for a new home for humanity. They are two thousand years from home when we meet them. From there, the book tells the parallel stories of what happens on Avrana Kern’s planet and what happens to the remnants of humanity on the Gilgamesh.

I appreciate how these two stories play against each other. Because of the length of time it takes the humans to get anywhere, and because they have suspension chamber technology, we get to see an entire society develop on the planet while the same human characters continue toddling around the galaxy. If it was just one or the other, it wouldn’t have worked as well for me. I’m intellectually fascinated by stories about the genesis of a society, but they often lack an emotional core because the characters are always changing. On the other hand, a tense story about the possible end of humanity itself might’ve been too grim. As it is, the excitement and hope of a developing society balance the stress of the humans’ tale, while the human characters give me personalities to latch onto while the planet continues to develop.

And what about that society on the planet? Did you guess? Oh yeeeeah, in the absence of monkeys, the virus latches onto other creatures in the planet’s ecosystem—the insects and arachnids, even some of the sea creatures. I learned more about spider anatomy and spider behaviour and how spiders interact with non-spiders than I ever thought I would. Before I read this book I might have said it was more than I wanted to know, but it was just so darn interesting that after I finished the book I felt intellectually sated in a way that rarely happens after reading fiction.

One of my common complaints about fiction is when a writer has done a lot of homework, there’s a desire to shove *all* that information into their text. And while Children of Time skirts that line at moments, for the most part, the facts and info are used to great effect. Tchaikovsky clearly did a crap-ton of research, but rather than flinging factoids willy-nilly, he uses that information to make an educated prediction about how an evolved spider society might function. It feels like it has a firm basis in reality and logic, and the result is a book that continually surprised me—but each of those surprises came with a feeling of “Oh! Of course!”

Of course they wouldn’t build structures out of stone and wood.

Of course their cities would eventually become technologically advanced metropolises made of webbing that spans dozens of square miles of forest.

Of course their technology wouldn’t develop along the same lines as ours.

And as for religion, it’s built into their society in a way I found incredibly satisfying. I don’t want to say too much about that, but I will say watching the spiders’ religion develop was one of my favourite parts of the book.

I’m not gonna lie: reading the bits about the humans kinda depressed me. Not because those bits aren’t well written, but more because they *are*. Don’t get me wrong; I like stories about humans living on spaceships and fighting for survival, and this is an excellent example of that. I just wasn’t in the right headspace for it, perhaps because the real world is a bit of a trashfire. As I said earlier, I was glad to have the future-looking optimism of the spider society to balance this out. If you’re at a mental place where thinking about the end of civilization is totally gonna bum you out, or where thinking hard about the nature of mankind and all its failings is gonna make you sad, you might wanna keep this one on your To-Be-Read pile for a little while. That said, I *do* recommend putting this in your TBR pile if you like sweeping, epic-scale space stories.

And once again, this is the first book in a series. It looks like the second book, Children of Ruin, will be out in May. And hey! It’s almost May!

Love and Romanpunk by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Love and Romanpunk (Twelve Planets Book 2) by Tansy Rayner Roberts - the faint image of a Roman coin and a dagger appear on a purple background

[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 24 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]

Let us begin with the issue of most interest to future historians: I did not poison my uncle and husband, the Emperor Claudius. Instead, I drove a stake through his heart.

That’s the first paragraph of Love and Romanpunk, by Tansy Rayner Roberts. Before we dive in, let’s get the full disclosure out of the way. Tansy is one of my cohosts on our Doctor Who podcast Verity!, and I do consider her a friend (despite never having met her in the non-internet world). Australia is Very Far Away.

Australia is also where part of this book is set, but not the first part. Love and Romanpunk is made up of four connected short stories that take place in four distinct places and times, but they have a strong thread of Romans and monsters (and Roman monsters) running through them to connect the events throughout history. Speaking of history, Tansy has a PhD in Roman history, so when it comes to ancient Rome, she knows her stuff. I love twisted history, and I love it most when it’s written by someone who knows it and loves it inside and out.

The first story is the most Roman of the bunch. It starts with a bestiary: “Julia Agrippina’s Secret Family Bestiary”, a glossary of monsters that is one of the most clever parts of a very clever book. It educates the reader about the types of monsters one might encounter later, and it simultaneously tells its own story, which is deftly woven into the alphabetical entries. I was skeptical at first because that kind of structured storytelling doesn’t always land for me, but by the end of it I wanted to stand up and applaud.

The rest of this first story is a first-person account of the secret history of the Caesars, written by Julia Agrippina, badass sister of Caligula, mother of Nero, and neice-wife of Claudius. It has a particular focus on the Julias of the family. It’s something special to be a Julia, you see. The introductory glossary makes it pretty clear that *this* Rome is populated by both humans and monsters (and some who are a bit of both). This section tells you who were the monsters and what kinds of monsters they were.

Then we cut to hundreds of years later for the next story, “Lamia Victoriana”, which is told from the POV of Mary Shelly’s sister, Fanny, who is beguiled by the sister of the poet Mary is in love with. Read carefully—it may not be the poet you expect. The poet and his sister are certainly not *what* you expect. Or at least not what Fanny expects. I’ll say this, the way Fanny handles the situation is not what *I* expected!

The result of her handling things leads to the next story, “The Patrician”, which takes place in the aforementioned Australia, in what seems to be just beyond present day. Someone has built a Roman “theme city”, Nova Ostia, complete with actual stones shipped from Rome. That may sound pretty neat and authentic, but apparently authentic Roman stones are basically monster magnets, as Clea Majora discovers. She lives and works in Nova Ostia and serves as our POV character for this section. I’d love to tell you about the person she meets, but I, as a reader, am not terribly quick on the uptake so it took me by delightful surprise. I’d hate to spoil that for anyone who reads this book (and I hope you do!).

The final story, “Last of the Romanpunks”, takes place in an airship, so I pretty much *had* to review this book on The Incomparable Network. It’s a “Romanpunk” airship that’s a travelling Roman-themed bar, complete with togas and spiced, watered wine. This time we see events from the POV of Clea’s grandson Sebastian, who is all grown up and knows his grandmother’s history as a monster-hunter. He thinks that stuff is all in the past. OR IS IT? Yeah. Sorry for the spoiler, but it’s NOT.

My favourite thing about Tansy’s writing is that it is whip-smart and crackingly clever while also being dangerously easy to read. Her stuff is not so much “I don’t want to put it down” as it is “Where the hell did the time go?”

And because this subject is so firmly in her wheelhouse, these stories feel confident and fun, and I really enjoyed the ride. I’ll close with something Tansy says in the Afterword: “I believe that if everyone who ever wrote an academic thesis followed it up with a tasty piece of fiction that is the literary equivalent of spraying offensive graffiti tags all over their area of expertise, the world would be a better place.”

Embers of War by Gareth L. Powell

Gareth L. Powell - Embers of War - a spaceship flies away from a moon orbiting a planet

[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 23 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]

Another ship dropped off the tactical grid, obliterated by a shower of pin-sized antimatter warheads. In the war room of her Scimitar, the Righteous Fury, Captain Annelida Deal uttered a venomous curse. The Outward ships were putting up more of a fight than she had anticipated, determined to protect their forward command post on the planet below. If she could only get past them, locate the bunker where the conference was taking place, and drop a decent-sized warhead of her own, the war might be over.

That’s the first paragraph of the prologue for Embers of War by Gareth L. Powell. About a month ago, he was giving some pretty excellent Twitter advice on how to promote your novel. In the course of that thread, he wisely put his money where his mouth was and included a short promo for Embers of War:

 

After reading that description I promptly bought the book.

That war crime takes place during the prologue. To end the war, one side does something truly horrific—several starships (including the Trouble Dog) take part in the razing of a sentient jungle that spans the entire single super-continent of a planet. Not only does this destroy a billion-year-old biosphere, but it takes thousands of soldiers and civilians with it. As the prologue closes:

The fires burned for six weeks. The war was over in one.

The story proper takes place three years later, and the redemption of the starship that’s mentioned in the tweet-teaser is only part of the book. Each chapter is told from the point of view of a character, and the Trouble Dog is only one of them. She’s a sentient warship who resigned her commission and joined the House of Reclamation—a neutral outfit that comes to the rescue of those in need. We also watch events through the lens of her new captain, Sal Konstanz, former captain of a medical ship that fought on the opposite side of the war. They and the rest of the skeleton crew are sent to investigate the disappearance of a ship in a mysterious planetary system.

Ashton Childe, an intelligence officer assigned to a planet he despises, is also tasked with investigating this event. And on the missing ship is Ona Sudak, a poet with a mysterious past. We get to know each of these characters, and a few more besides, as they all race to reach the site of the incident, or in the poet’s case, to escape the wreckage and explore a truly fascinating and inexplicable planet.

Throughout the action, we get a lot of reflection on the war and the lingering effects of such a devastating conflict. This isn’t a book in which the characters are all battle-hardened veterans who came out the other side tougher than they went in. The effects of trauma are often more subtle than that, and Embers of War does an elegant job of showcasing some of the different ways war can change and shape a person—or a starship.

I admit, that was the part that piqued my interest the most—I love sentient spaceships, and I did find myself wishing for more from the Trouble Dog‘s POV. The humans are all well written and feel like developed characters, but that only serves to set apart the Trouble Dog (and also the ship’s maintenance alien, Nod) even more. Despite the human cells used to grow a ship’s brain, they are most definitely not human, and the POV chapters for the ship and for Nod feel very different from the human stuff. The Trouble Dog‘s interactions with her former pack-mates are fascinating, while the Nod chapters are spare and odd and poetic.

I am a sucker for sci-fi with an ancient intergalactic mystery, and there’s one at the heart of this book. We’re introduced to it fairly early on, though it doesn’t become clear how it affects the story until later in the book, which is as it should be. By the end, I was quite curious what would happen next. Yes, this is definitely the first book in a series, so if that’s not your thing, you should probably steer clear. That said, Embers of War does come to a satisfying conclusion. If I didn’t want to know what came next, I’d feel fine about stopping here. It sort of answers the questions we have only to leave us with more—which is an effective way to close the first novel in a series. The next book, Fleet of Knives, arrived in February, and I, for one, will be checking it out.

Note: Full disclosure, I kinda-sorta know Gareth L. Powell online, though I’ve never met nor actually spoken with him.

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

Record of a Spaceborn Few (Wayfarers Book 3) by Becky Chambers -- A spaceship with six branching tubes leading to six hexagonal sections flies through space

[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 22 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]

“Mom, Can I go see the stars?”

That’s the first sentence of Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers. If you regularly listen to Book Club episodes of The Incomparable, you’ve probably heard Jason Snell and several other people (including me!) waxing poetic about how much we enjoyed Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet and its follow-up, A Closed and Common Orbit. Record of a Spaceborn Few is her third book in this universe, but I’m not going to call it the third in a series. All three of these novels take place in the far future, in a universe where Earth has been ravaged by the depredations of humanity, and humans have fled the planet — either to elsewhere in Earth’s solar system (Mars or other colonies) or in a great exodus fleet to the stars — where humans discovered they share the galaxy with various alien races, many of whom are part of the Galactic Commons — a loose federation of races that, at the time of these books, had only recently let humanity join.

I’m purposely going to avoid heavy spoilers about the other two books because I think they’re great, and I think you should read them. I don’t, however, think you need to read them before you read this book. (If, like me, you’re Quite Particular about consuming media in the order it was created, you probably will, but you don’t *have* to.)

One of the things I found most fascinating about this world in the first book was the place of humans in this future. We’re basically at the bottom of the social ladder. As I said, humanity was only allowed into the Galactic Commons a short time before the events in these books — within the lifetimes of some of the human characters. I grew up reading a lot of whiz-bang space-future books where Man was either alone in the universe, at war with an equally-powerful race, or simply at the top of the heap. The idea of humanity brought low isn’t a new idea, but it felt refreshing to me, in part because Chambers didn’t dwell on it. It’s simply a fact of life.

The second book focuses on an Artificial Intelligence learning to live disguised as a human. It’s a more personal story, so while galactic politics definitely figure in, that aspect floats much more around the edges. And while I didn’t miss it at all (I really REALLY adored that book), I was excited to discover that Record of a Spaceborn Few is all about humans and human history and the future of humanity. Humans, humans, humans.

It did have the side-effect of feeling a little preachy, but that’s something you run into in most media focused on our place in a larger universe. In Doctor Who we get the 4th Doctor’s famous “humans are indomitable” speech. In Babylon 5, the other races observe that humans build community like no others. In Star Trek…well, Star Trek (especially early Star Trek) is told from a very human-centric viewpoint. So you probably get my meaning. The greatness-of-humanity tends to be a theme I bounce off, which is part of why I loved Chambers’ first book so much. We were just another race in a great big universe. Which is why, as a reader, I’m glad I read this book third. My appetite for information was whetted by the first two novles, so by the time I got to this one, I was ready to dive into human society and see what it’s all about.

This book takes place in the Exodan Fleet and follows the lives of a handful of separate characters as they go about their lives. There is a familial connection to one of the characters from the first book. One of the characters we follow in the fleet is the sister of the captain from the first book, but it’s not in any way a plot point. It’s just a thing that’s mentioned a few times — usually as an example of how and why a human might want to leave the fleet and join the larger universe.

In terms of plot, this book is somewhat similar to the first, in that there’s not exactly a central story or mystery to solve. It’s more a day-in-the-life (or, a-few-months-in-the-life) examination of what it’s like to grow up in a wholly artificial environment where resources are finite. Every molecule must be cared for, tracked, and re-used — up to and including human bodies when they die. Or, in the case of one of the POV characters, it’s about what it’s like to come from living on a planet and then try to adjust to life on a spaceship in a fleet that’s developed a pretty insular society. It’s not so easy to settle in and make friends when everyone looks at you as an outsider. This is nicely contrasted by one character who can’t wait to leave the fleet and go anywhere else because the fleet never changes much, so their life is boring with a capital BORE.

My favorite thing about all three of these books is the well-developed universe Chambers created. It feels so deeply built-out. Like I could pop in and ask about any random race or planet or space station or racial tradition or social construct, and there would be a fully-formed answer. Even the smallest interactions seem to have accounted for how each part of this world affects the others. This book is no different. From the way humans care for their dead, to the layout of the residential areas of the ships, to the way families decorate their homes to commemorate the generations who have lived there, to the central idea that everyone must do something to pull their weight (with the delightful concept that everyone should try different jobs to determine what they’re good at and how they can best serve the fleet), there were exceedingly few moments where I wondered “how would that work?” because Chambers told or showed me how.

In terms of the relationships and personal journeys of the characters, I think I connected with this book the least of the three — possibly because the connections between the characters even within the book are more tenuous than in the previous novels. Instead of having a core cast of characters who work together, we dip in and out of the lives of people who don’t interact with each other much. Though to be fair, when they do, it’s in a meaningful way. I just prefer stories about a team pulling together because I find that more emotionally compelling — it’s like one large pull at my heart-strings instead of having my feels tugged in multiple directions. But that’s just me. Your mileage (light-yearage?) may vary.

On an Incomparable episode, I’m pretty sure I said I wanted many many more stories told in this universe — anywhere in this universe. And so far, that is exactly what I’m getting. Each book has a thin thread tying it to the others, but they’re definitely not continuations of the same story. I hope Becky Chambers continues to write more in this universe. And then more. And then more. Because I am all in.

Girl Reporter by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Cover of Girl Reporter by Tansy Rayner Roberts. A drawing of a girl with purple hair, glasses, and a knit cap holding a purple cell phone and saluting with 2 fingers. An older woman with her eyes closed in the background. Silhouettes of 4 superheroes fly in the upper background.

[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 15 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]

The Friday Report Presents: Everything You Need To Know about True Blue Aussie Beaut Superheroes, But Were Afraid To Ask

That’s the title of the first chapter of Girl Reporter by Tansy Rayner Roberts. It’s the story of Friday Valentina, daughter of one of the world’s most famous reporters. Friday is a successful reporter in her own right, in the mileu of “new media”—she’s a YouTube vlogger, a live-tweeter, and always has her phone at hand to capture the story. This gets much trickier when the story at hand, the one she’s been avoiding for a while, is this: her famous mother is missing, and her found-family-brother, who happens to be a superhero, thinks they should do something about it.

I should mention that in this version of the world, Australia (along with every other country) has mysterious machines that turn people into superheroes. In Australia, there are five heroes at any given time. Every six months, a new hero is chosen, and one of the existing five retires. These heroes are not only saviors of the world, but celebrities—gracing the covers of magazines and inspiring royal-family-level gossip and speculation. Friday’s mother made her name getting the first interview with one of the heroes, and there’s a very good chance her disappearance has something to do with this. (I won’t spoil where she is or who she’s with, but it’s a helluva reveal.)

Like a fool, I started reading this novella at bedtime, expecting to get a couple chapters in and then fall asleep like I usually do. Alas, the relatable determination and snark of the main character, along with the lively prose, kept me awake and interested—while the intense need to know what happened next kept me turning the virtual pages until I’d finished the whole book. And then, because I just wanted a little bit more about this fantastic story, I read the afterward, in which Roberts admits this story is a love-letter to all the “girl reporters” in comics—the women with no superpowers but plenty of resolve, resourcefulness, and raw talent.

I knew this wasn’t Roberts’ first time writing in this universe, as I’d read her short story “Cookie Cutter Hero” in the Kaleidoscope anthology. That story explains how the “new” Solar (a teenage girl with one hand) received her superhero powers, but I didn’t realize this was the second *book* in this universe until the next day when I looked it up on Goodreads. To be honest, it really didn’t matter that it was a sequel. I got all the context I needed, and I was never confused about what was happening or why. (Though I am definitely gonna go back and read book one, Kid Dark Against the Machine.)

I really recommend Girl Reporter, especially if you have any fondness for superhero-fiction. Roberts pokes fun at the tropes while demonstrating she knows and loves them oh-so-well. I should warn you though, if you don’t like to laugh at (and with) your heroes, this book may not be for you. Also, if you’re not comfortable with feminism, 80s fashion, diversity, or lesbian sex, you might want to avoid this. If those things are your things? Don’t hesitate! Pick up Girl Reporter now!

Summer in Orcus by T. Kingfisher

Cover of Summer in Orcus (a wolf stands in a misty glade; the trees seem to be sprouting out of a giant horned animal)

[For an audio version of this article, please listen to Episode 14 of Recently Read on The Incomparable podcast network.]

Once upon a time there was a girl named Summer, whose mother loved her very very very much.

Her mother loved her so much that she was not allowed to play outside where someone might grab her, nor go away on sleepovers where there might be an accident or suspicious food. She was not allowed to go away to camp, where she might be squashed by a horse or bitten by diseased mosquitoes, and she most certainly was not allowed to go on the Ferris Wheel at the carnival because (her mother said) the people who maintain the machinery are lazy and not very educated and might get drunk and forget to put a bolt back on and the entire thing could come loose at any moment and fall down and kill everyone inside, and they should probably leave the carnival immediately before it happened.

That’s the beginning of Summer in Orcus, by T. Kingfisher and illustrated by Lauren Henderson. T. Kingfisher is the pseudonym of Ursula Vernon, who is an award-winning writer and artist of children’s books and graphic novels. Anything with “T. Kingfisher” on the cover is meant for non-children, as is Summer in Orcus—however, you don’t need to be *too* grown up to appreciate this book. In fact, it was a nominee for The World Science Fiction Society Award for Best Young Adult Book. That’s how I came across it.

If you’re a listener to The Incomparable, you might recall episode 412, in which an intrepid band of book-club adventurers (including yours truly) read most-if-not-all of the 2018 Hugo Award nominees for best novel, as well as a few other nominated works. At that time, I hadn’t completed my reading, and time was getting short, so I came up with a cunning plan for the YA category. I decided to read 33% of each book, and then if there was time before voting ended, I’d loop back and finish as many as I could.

I quite enjoyed the stories published under Ursula Vernon’s name, so I decided to start with Summer in Orcus.

Welp. That was a mistake.

Why?

Because I foiled my cunning plan right out of the gate. I swiftly reached 33% of the book, and simply could not bring myself to stop. I whizzed on by 50% and then left 60% in the dust. Eventually I gave in and admitted I was reading this whole thing without stopping for anything less important than sleep, work, or food. (And sometimes not for those.)

And now, to why. This book pushed so many of my buttons I felt like a busy elevator. My literary happy-place is anywhere a youngish girl is whisked away from her normal, mundane world into a land of magic and danger (and possibly talking animals). That’s exactly what happens when 11-year-old Summer has a run-in with Baba Yaga, whose chicken-legged hut has come to roost in a neighbouring yard. The old witch promises Summer her heart’s desire! Then the witch turns Summer out into the land of Orcus, where she must figure out where she is, why she’s there, what she should be doing, whom to trust, how to get home, and what exactly *is* her heart’s desire anyway?

The twist on all this that had me lapping it up is that Summer in Orcus is incredibly self aware. Summer herself is a fan of this genre, and she’s continually comparing her circumstances to those in Narnia or Oz or similar locales. So rather than approaching her plight as a typical “oblivious” character, she tackles things the way we, as savvy readers, would likely do it.

Of course you can’t have an adventure story like this without collecting a menagerie of friends-you-make-along-the-way. In this case that includes a talking weasel, a nattily-dressed bird and his flock of valets, some truly fierce geese, and my favorite—a werehouse. That’s not a typo. It is, indeed, w-e-r-e-house, which is a talking wolf who turns into a lovely cottage at night. (Truly the best kind of companion to have along when adventuring…until the dreaded house-hunters come stalking along, anyway.)

Yes. This book has many puns. If that puts you off, A) I do not understand you, and B) you might want to avoid this one—or just push through because there’s an awful lot more to it than clever puns.

The story is not entirely made up of delight and wonder. There are moments of sadness and darkness, including some references to Summer’s mundanely sad backstory. In fact, Summer’s experience dealing with her mentally ill mother is what honed the very skills she needs to succeed in Orcus. I’ll say no more than that, except to tease the existence of characters like the the Forester, the Warlord, and the Queen-in-Chains.

This book was originally published as a free serial, with chapters released twice weekly, and while I can kinda see that structure, I didn’t know it going in, and I wouldn’t have recognized it except for stumbling across that fact on Goodreads. To me it was an engrossing journey-quest that had me laughing and crying and wanting much, much more. I do hope I’ll get it.

In closing, I’d like to warn you all: Antelope women cannot be trusted.