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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Stretching is Scary

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No, this is not a post about yoga. Though considering how long it’s been since I’ve done yoga regularly, that’s scary too. No, this is a post about trying something new–or at least trying something publicly that you haven’t done a whole lot (and never beyond the confines of your own home).

It’ll probably come as no surprise that this is podcast-related, so it’s not as scary as it could be. But despite the oodles of podcasting I’ve done over the last few years, new things can be intimidating–even new things you’ve really wanted to try.

I suppose I should get to it. I read a story for the Uncanny Magazine Podcast!* Continue reading

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

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