Wednesday, 8 August 2018

Summer in Orcus by T. Kingfisher

I am not sure how I came to read Castle Hangnail a year or two ago, but I do know that I've been recommending it to everyone I know with children, and quite a few adults, ever since. It was just so thoroughly delightful, with wonderful turns of phrase and good-hearted messages at the core of the story of a young girl taking over an evil castle and installing herself as the new evil sorceress in town.

When I saw that one of the young adult novel nominees was by Ursula Vernon under a pseudonym, I was really looking forward to it. Then I sat down to read it, and it was even better than I had expected. It was just simply delightful, an excellent mix of realism and fantasy, difficult situations and unexpected answers, all with an avoidance of easy tropes of winning through war or even of absolute victory.

I particularly enjoyed the main character's background and struggles - Summer is an eleven-year-old only child with a single mother. Specifically, her mother seems to be struggling with fairly extreme anxiety about almost all aspects of her life, but particularly when it comes to perceived dangers to her daughter. Summer has had to learn how to negotiate her mother's issues, but she's yearning to be able to do more and dare more than her mother allows.

So when a house comes down an alley she's not allowed to go down, and settles down in the yard next door, Summer figures out how to visit, and meets Baba Yaga. Baba Yaga promises Summer her heart's desire, but doesn't tell Summer what that is. Although she is given a talking weasel.  Summer and the weasel (the weasel is never named) go back out the front door, but not back to the neighbour's lawn - instead they find themselves in a magical land, Orcus.

Once there, she finds a land where the wondrous is slowly withering away - personified by a tree that should drop leaves that turn into frogs, but is not even managing tadpoles. She goes on a journey, as one does, that finds her many strange and wonderful companions, including Glorious, a werehouse (a wolf who turns into a house at night); a rather dandyish hoopoe who is perhaps avoiding the bird Ton; two geese who are sent by the hoopoe's aristocratic father to guard him; an antelope woman who definitely intends to mess with Summer; and a flock of valet birds.

As the withering of the wondrous suggests, there is an evil force in the land, personified, more or less, by three circles getting tighter with malice. We have Grub, who pursues Summer, Zultan, a general-type who directs Grub to pursue Summer, and the legendary Queen-in-Chains, who no one has ever seen, although her destruction of the Tower of Dogs made everyone quite aware of her power.

Yes, there are lots of details. There are lots more - Donkeyskin and her sisters, the Wheymaker, the woman in the forest, more and more. The point I'd like to make about them is that each is still very vivid in my memory, in a way that I often lose. I remembered far more of the names, the details, the enchanting story than I often do. It all fits together perfectly out of discarded little pieces that somehow make much more than the sum of their parts.

Summer's journey is difficult - she is often sore and alone and scared, up against odds that pull her down. But she is also resourceful, brave, and has particular skills developed by her life to date, and the ending is delightfully not about a battle or an obstacle to be beaten. But it is about Summer becoming who she is, and what that might mean for her future. 

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