Review: Summer in Orcus

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Review: Summer in Orcus

1. Don’t worry about things that you cannot fix.

2. Antelope women are not to be trusted.

3. You cannot change essential nature with magic.

– Instructions in a stained-glass window, written on a book carried by a saint wearing purple sneakers

Eleven-year-old Summer dreams of adventure…but if she’s honest about it her idea of “adventure” involves a little freedom from her over-protective mother. It would be nice to do things like go to camp, or ride a Ferris Wheel, or maybe just take a bath without someone checking every five minutes to make sure she isn’t drowning. She certainly never planned to step through a magic portal and wind up all on her own in a strange new world with a weasel on her shoulder, but then who does?

Starting life as an online serial, T. Kingfisher’s latest book Summer in Orcus dives headfirst into a land of bird aristocrats, manticore cheese, snail marketplaces, and a masked warlord serving the mysterious Queen-In-Chains. It all starts when Summer has a chance meeting with Baba Yaga, who sends her on a journey to find her Heart’s Desire.

It might have been helpful if Baba Yaga had told her what that is.

If it sounds like Summer has the kind of evil mother that young girls sometimes have in fairytales, well, she doesn’t. Okay maybe a little, but not exactly. Summer’s mother is way too protective, and kind of damaged, and achingly human in a way that ends up doing a lot of harm while trying to do the exact opposite. And while Summer does honestly love her mother, she’s also kind of exhausted by her, and spends as much time as she can reading fairytales as an escape.

Keeping that in mind, it’s a understandable that Summer wouldn’t be fazed (much) by a run-in with the terrifying Baba Yaga and her delightfully opinionated chicken-legged house. And you can see why Summer accepts Yaga’s invitation to visit without too many second thoughts, other than to wonder whether she should wish for the ability to talk to animals or to be a shapechanger. Both of those options are on the table when it comes to her Heart’s Desire, although asking Baba Yaga for anything can be a pretty dangerous business.

“She doesn’t go back on her word, you know, although she could teach the Devil a few things about loopholes.”

Like all of T. Kingfisher’s stories, the main character soon bonds with a host of fascinating travel companions, like the sensible but somewhat impatient weasel (who never bothered getting a first name), a giant wolf who transforms into something much more interesting than a human, and the dandy of a hoopoe bird Reginald, who travels with everything you need to keep the wilderness civilized, up to and including valets (Reginald’s impeccably-dressed valets were probably one of my favorite parts of the book).

All of this makes the world of Orcus sound like a pretty strange place. Which is exactly what it is; T. Kingfisher mentions in her author’s notes that this book was an opportunity to use up a lot of the odd little tidbits she’s had floating around in her brain. This is a story filled with scorpion lights and acorn tadpoles, animal skin-wearing princesses in exile, eight-legged horses (looking even more disturbing than you’d imagine), scary real-estate hunters (you heard me), and English Regency mansions built for high-society birds.

“Oh, well, albatrosses.” Reginald flipped his wing. “Prophets and poets, the lot of them. Not bad-hearted, but you ask one the time of day and he tells you time is an illusion, and how is that getting anything done?”

All of Kingfisher’s stories feature the bizarre mixed with the mundane (and people sometimes reacting to the bizarre as if it’s actually mundane) but I’d swear this book has more of that than all the others put together. I’ve enjoyed every one of her books, but I was absolutely hooked on this one as soon as I got to the hilariously surreal scene set in a long hallway, with a story being told entirely in stained glass windows.

Summer in OrcusNot all of the story is bright and funny though. In addition to using up random oddities, Kingfisher wanted to go a little further into the theme of children on adventures (like the Pevensies in Narnia), and what it would be like to actually be in fear for your life, or to be responsible for saving something when you’re only eleven and your school spent more time teaching you about grammar than about warlords and wasp queens. Summer has some narrow escapes while being hunted by some truly horrible people, and it’s a nasty feeling to know that even if it isn’t your fault when your hunters burn villages to the ground, the fires are still happening because of you. 

The climax of the story is nothing that I expected, and it’s all mixed together with triumph and tragedy, with having to be older than your years, and with people who live and die being true to their nature (sometimes that’s beautiful, but not always). The ending is pretty much exactly what I wanted: instead of a neat package, it’s kind of a tangle with several loose ends and the promise that at some point the story will continue, even if Kingfisher doesn’t actually write it. Which I really hope she does anyway. There’s so much fascinating information that didn’t actually get explained; we only had one brief mention of something called a Phoenix Hedgehog, and I’m dying to know what that’s all about.