Summer is a young girl whose overly protective, clingy mother tries to protect her from every possible danger, although Summer is allowed to read books about magic and shapechanging and such. (“Summer’s mother believed that books were safe things that kept you inside, which only shows how little she knew about it, because books are one of the least safe things in the world.”) But Summer’s mother is no match for Baba Yaga! One spring day Summer is found by Baba Yaga ― actually, she’s found by Baba Yaga’s chicken-footed house, which manages to convinces Baba Yaga that Summer is the girl they want for some unstated purpose.
When Baba Yaga offers Summer her heart’s desire, Summer really isn’t sure what to answer, though shapeshifting or being able to talk to animals do come to her mind. Instead, though, Baba Yaga looks deep into Summer’s heart and mind, then hands over a talking weasel to Summer and shoos her out of the house. And suddenly Summer finds herself in a strange, magical world, not at all certain where she’s going or what she’s supposed to do there.
Initially she’s in a long hallway with purple stained glass windows featuring a mischievous-looking saint, whose book proffers some cryptic advice like “Don’t worry about things you cannot fix” and “Antelope women are not to be trusted.” A door then leads Summer to a forest in the magical land of Orcus, where she meets a trio of shapeshifting women and is charmed by dryad-inhabited trees whose leaves turn into mice or frogs as they drop to the ground. But: “There is a cancer at the heart of the world” the woman in the bear skin tells Summer, and Summer can see that the Frog Tree is dying. Entrusted with a tadpole acorn by the tree’s dryad, Summer takes on a quest to save the Frog Tree, and perhaps more. She finds help from several inhabitants of Orcus, particularly a shapeshifting wolf (at night he turns into, not a human, but a pleasant cottage) and a hoopoe bird with Regency manners and a helpful flock of small valet-birds in bowler hats. But she also finds that she’s being pursued by the fearsome Zultan Houndbreaker and his aptly named servant Grub, who hunt her in the name of the Queen-in-Chains.
I am completely in love with Summer in Orcus (2017), a charming portal fantasy by T. Kingfisher (a pen-name of Ursula Vernon). Summer in Orcus manages to be absolutely delightful, with vividly imagined details and a delicious sense of humor, while at the same time subverting several stock fantasy tropes. It references Narnia with clear affection, while remaining clear-eyed about the dangers and difficulties of being a child who’s actually in a fantasy portal world.
She thought, down in her very private heart of hearts, that she wanted to go home.
She felt immediately guilty for thinking it. In books, nobody who found themselves in a fantasy world ever wanted to go home. (Well, nobody but Eustace Clarence Stubb in Narnia, and you weren’t supposed to agree with him.)
She was definitely not feeling grateful enough for being on a superb magical adventure. She told herself this sternly several times and then wanted to cry, because it doesn’t help to yell at people who are cold and wet, even when the person yelling at you is you.
Summer in Orcus will be enjoyable for both younger and older readers. It’s written on a middle grade/young adult level, but its sly humor and frequent references to classic fantasy novels and fairy tales will keep adult readers engaged. While the life lessons learned aren’t particularly subtle, they have elegance and mesh well with the plot of the book. Very highly recommended!
Summer in Orcus has been nominated for the 2018 World Science Fiction Society (WSFS) award for best Young Adult book. Kingfisher originally posted this novel online in weekly installments, which you can read online on her website. It’s also available in print and as a very reasonably priced ebook, which have appealing pencil illustrations by Lauren Henderson (I especially loved the tadpole acorn) that help to bring the story to life.