29 August 2018

Hugos 2018: Summer in Orcus by Ursula Vernon

Trade paperback, 261 pages
Published 2017 (originally 2016)

Acquired May 2018
Read June 2018
Summer in Orcus by T. Kingfisher

Summer in Orcus was technically a finalist for the Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book, but I'm not sure it's YA per se, for two reasons. One, the protagonist Summer is 11, which skews a bit more middle-grade, and two, T. Kingfisher (a.k.a. Ursula Vernon) actually wrote the story for an adult audience, namely herself and her Patreon backers.

But anyway, it's the story of Summer, who's sent into a fantasy world called Orcus by Baba Yaga and ends up going on a quest, meeting a number of distinct and vivid characters on the way. I grew up reading portal-quest fantasy, and I love the stuff. This isn't quite my flavor: Orcus feels more like a mythology and less like a place, if that makes any sense. Like, I like those fantasy lands where one draws maps of kingdoms and continents, like Oz and Middle-earth, or at least could do so, like Narnia. Orcus is more a collection of mythologies, which I don't like quite as much.

Still, that's picking too much at something that's basically a whim of preference. I really enjoyed this. Summer is a good protagonist, the daughter of a single mother who sometimes feels oppressed by her mother who ends up travelling to another world and meeting a variety of travelling companions, including a werehouse (a wolf that transforms into a house) and, my favorite, Reginald, a bird who is a bit of a fop; if you imagine him being voiced by Hugh Laurie in his Wooster mode, it works perfectly.

The book is filled with a lot of charm, a lot of clever concepts, some metafiction, and a lot of jokes. I really liked how things resolved. Summer, like a lot of child portal-quest protagonists, succeeds through being nice and attentive (I'm thinking of Baum's characters here), and I enjoyed her attempts to decode what her role in events was, and respond to the needs of those around her without being duped. Like I said, I liked Reginald, and I also enjoyed the entire visit to his family's estate and the associated civilization. Kingfisher does some nice extrapolation: Baba Yaga's walking house becomes the basis for a land filled with walking houses, where houses you have to build yourself are inferior. The villains are well-drawn and interesting and have relatable motives. Summer herself has read Narnia, and those books are occasionally invoked as she tries to work out what's going on, and often the narrator will deliberately subvert your expectations of the genre. And as things like "werehouse" indicate, there's a good line in puns (one of the things the narrator makes fun of, actually), but there's also some gentle character humor in the way the members of Summer's weird little group interacts.

The end promises a sequel; I would definitely read it if it was written, and I think the deepening of the land by coming back years later would even rectify my primary objection.

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