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.

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Recently Read

Recently Read

Hey all! If you haven’t heard the news, The Incomparable podcast network has a podcast feed all about books!

So poor is my sense of time that I was going to call Recently Read a “recent addition” to the network. Then I looked at the list of episodes and realized the first one came out in June of last year. How does time even work?

Anyway, if you’re a book-lover like I am, you may want to check this out. Each episode is short (usually well under 10 minutes!) and consists of someone talking about a book they just read. I’ve done several, and it’s honestly encouraged me to read more. Turns out I like having a place I can talk about a book I just read, even if it’s a one-sided conversation.

I’ve got a couple more drafted — yes, I write the script out before I record — and I’ll be posting them soonish. It recently occurred to me that those scripts (with a little bit of polishing) would make for good blog posts. I know not everyone can (or wants to) listen to podcasts, so I plan to start posting those book reviews here. Also soonish.

I really do encourage you to check out the podcast though. There are many more people than just lil ol’ me on the network, and quite a few of us have been Recently Reading. It’s fun!

A (Dark) Towering Achievement

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I finally did it. I finally finished Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series.*

This is a feat I’ve been trying to accomplish for many years now. That makes it sound like this was an onerous task, but nothing could be further from the truth! I loved it. But it did take me an excessively long time.

I can’t remember when I started reading the first book, The Gunslinger, but it must have been in the late 90s, as I think Wizard and Glass was already out in trade paperback.** My brother, Dylan, urged me to read these great books he’d been reading. I have to admit, I scoffed at first. I think I’d bought into the anti-hype that King was a bit of a hack. I’d read The Stand, but I assumed that was an outlier, a one-off. The rest of his stuff couldn’t possibly be any good. It was all about monsters and horror and clowns and stuff, right? Continue reading

I’m in Another Book!

You and Who Contact Has Been Made Vol 2

That’s right! When it rains, it pours, apparently, and it’s pouring Doctor Who goodness at the moment. The excitement of seeing my name (and words I wrote!) in print in Companion Piece hasn’t even worn off yet, and here’s another opportunity to experience that thrill.

You and Who: Contact Has Been Made – Volume 2 has just been released. It’s the second volume in a series that looks at Doctor Who story-by-story. I can almost hear you saying “another book about Doctor Who?” Well first of all, I’m not sure there is such a thing as too many books about Doctor Who. There are as many interesting things to be said about the show as there are people to say them. And that is precisely why I’m so thrilled to be a part of this particular book. Continue reading

I’m in a BOOK!

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You guys! I’m in a BOOK! And yes the capital letters there make it look like I’m yelling. THAT’S BECAUSE I AM!

I AM IN A REAL-LIFE MADE-FROM-PAPER WITH-WORDS-ON-THE-PAGES BOOK!

Ahem. Sorry. I’ll try to control myself. But did you hear? I’m in a BOOK!

Ok, it’s seriously (mostly) out of my system now. You have to understand, I have been a voracious reader for most of my life. When I was a kid, we’d go to the library as a family, and each of us would take out a huge stack of books. It was a point of pride that I read every Doctor Who Target novelization from the Muskego Public Library—as well as everything in the young adult section. And then I moved on to the grown-up science fiction section before I was even in High School. I am a Reader.* It’s part of my basic makeup. In a way, I see books as magical, sacred objects. So much of my upbringing centered around them, it’s hard to imagine my life without books.

Anyway, that might give you an idea why the thought of being in one is so mind-boggling to me. It’s kind of like when Continue reading

My Reading Renaissance (& Whom to Blame)

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When I was a kid, I was a reader. No, a Reader. Capital R. I read voraciously. I started before kindergarten, reading these weird Dick and Jane ripoffs that had a little girl, a little boy, and a dog. I’m pretty sure the girl’s name was Wendy, but I can’t remember the boy or the dog.* Okay, they might not have been “ripoffs”. For all I know, they came first. I do remember other kids in kindergarten not knowing what I was talking about when I mentioned them. I was barely 5, and I was already “weird” for reading books the other kids hadn’t heard of. This trend was to continue for most of my life.

Anyway, from there, I graduated to Nancy Drew, The Dana Girls, and Encyclopedia Brown. I wanted to be a private detective and lapped up just about everything they had in the school library (except for the Hardy Boys, because boys were boring). Then I discovered sci-fi and fantasy, and it was goodbye to every moment of spare time. I was a Reader. Escaping into books was the Best Thing.

We’d go to the library as a family every month, and my mom would come home with Continue reading

The Death of a Good Book (Series)

Robin Hobb Books

Right now I’m between books.* In fact, I’m purposefully taking a break before I start reading something else. I recently finished reading Robin Hobb‘s entire Assassin/Liveship/Tawny Man/Rain Wild series. There’s probably a more proper name for the whole thing, but it boils down to this: three trilogies followed by a tetralogy, all taking place in the same world with some characters overlapping from series to series.

I’d read the three trilogies before, and once the final book in the recent tetralogy came out last year, I decided it was time to jump back in. These are some of my favorite fantasy books ever, so I had no qualms about re-reading them all, and despite a busy schedule, I managed to whip through all nine in a matter of a few months.

When I finished that ninth book, I started drafting a blog post that somewhere along the line got lost. I dug it up today, and it brought back the same feelings I had when I wrote it: Continue reading