Summer in Orcus

by T. Kingfisher

Cover image

Publisher: Red Wombat Studio
Copyright: 2016
ASIN: B01N26G2I0
Format: Web serial
Pages: 268

This is an ebook, so metadata may be inaccurate or missing. See notes on ebooks for more information.

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In September, Ursula Vernon started posting Summer in Orcus as a web serial, funded by her Patreon supporters. The entire story is now complete and available on-line for free, which is how I read it, but it's also available as an ebook from the expected places if you prefer to read it that way. The ebook publication lists T. Kingfisher as the author, Vernon's pen name for her books for adults. While I would have been happy to read this book as a kid, it does have one fairly gruesome chapter, which is probably the reason for that choice.

Summer is eleven, and her mother loves her very much. So much so that she's never allowed to do anything even slightly risky, and she spends quite a lot of her time and emotional energy reassuring her mother, dealing with the burden of that suffocating love, and helping her through her bad days. Then, one day, a house with giant chicken feet walks into the alley behind her house.

Summer in Orcus is a portal fantasy. It's the story of how Summer meets Baba Yaga and asks for her heart's desire, finds herself in the magical country of Orcus, and is desperately moved by the plight of a frog tree. It has a talking weasel and a werehouse and antelope women who are not to be trusted, and it's about Summer making friends her mother would never have approved of and learning what she's capable of, and about doing what one can to put things right.

Even though it may appear that way at times, Summer in Orcus is not really a book about large things. It's not a saving the world sort of portal fantasy. And it's not really a wish fulfillment portal fantasy, because heart's desires are complicated and subtle. It's a story about being scared and tired and lost, and about making friends, and doing the things one can do rather than learning how to be a completely different person. The plot itself is not particularly complex, but the joy of this story is in all the small things.

Vernon's writing is an absolute delight. Summer in Orcus is packed with sentences and paragraphs that I just want to read again and again and quote at people.

Summer had never had a father, and wasn’t entirely sure what you did with one, and certainly her mother never had anything good to say about the one Summer didn’t have.

Or:

The house lifted its back end up and inched forward a little, like a dog wanting to play. This must have made the floors tilt inside, because Summer heard a banging and sliding of furniture and Baba Yaga yelled, "Fool house! I’ll trade you in for one with turtle feet and a three-car garage!" The house sank back down, but wiggled forward a little more, until the front door was only a few feet away.

Vernon mentions in her author notes at the end that Summer in Orcus started as a place to put a whole bunch of fragmentary ideas that she'd come up with but that didn't seem to fit into other stories, and it does have a bit of a grand tour feel to it. But unlike a lot of grand tour figures, the protagonist is not at all bland. Summer is entirely believable and very sympathetic, torn between wanting a grand adventure and being afraid of circumstance and danger entirely outside of her limited experience. She channels the reader's awe and delight, but is still very much her own person, trying to figure out who she wants to be and believe in without the stifling presence of her mother.

The tour nature of the story does mean that some things weren't explored as deeply as I would have liked. I would dearly love to read more about the dogs, for instance. I also have to admit that Zultan's motives never made sense to me, even after they were explained, and I found him an odd and weirdly random character to the end. But Glorious is, well, glorious, and I utterly adored the bits with the Forester. The ending is highly unusual for a story of this sort, and I thought it was wonderful, with a great symbolic tie back to the start of the story. The aftermath is even better, including Summer standing firm against one of the tropes of portal fantasies that I dislike the most.

This is a great story, with some excellent writing. If you're anything like me, once you read the first chapter you won't want to stop (and since it's all available on the web for free, there's no reason to stop). Recommended.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2017-01-26

Last modified and spun 2017-05-14