T. Kingfisher’s 2017’s Summer in Orcus is a standalone young-adult portal fantasy.
Determined to keep Summer safe, Summer’s mother has spent years protecting the girl from every possible danger, no matter how small. No matter how ludicrous. The weight of her mother’s love is a heavy burden.
Perhaps another girl would have turned down the Baba Yaga’s offer to give her her heart’s desire. Summer accepts and is immediately dispatched to a new, unfamiliar world. One that comes with a quest.
At first glance, Orcus seems like a good choice of secondary world for a cosseted young girl. It’s full of talking animals and whimsical frog-trees, were-houses, and class-conscious birds. It seems like a charming Narnia-like world. But, to give her credit, Summer knows enough about worlds like Narnia to know she cannot take what she first sees at face value.
Summer soon discovers that Orcus suffers under malign rulers. A former golden age was brought to an abrupt end by Zoltan Houndbreaker and the Queen-in-Chains. Zoltan is determined to maintain his domination of Orcus. To this end, any potential disruption — a strange human girl on a mysterious quest, for example — will be dealt with firmly. Very firmly.
Between her and the object of her quest: ancient Zoltan and his armed patrols, conniving antelope women, flights of deadly wasps, and the Queen-in-Chains herself. If Summer fails, Orcus may die with her. She has no choice but to embrace the danger if she is save Orcus and win her heart’s desire.
If only Summer had some idea what her heart’s desire might be.
On the one hand, the idea of Always Evil races like the antelope women is problematic. On the other, one has to admire the consistency of purpose that maintains a grudge over generations and centuries.
Similarly, one has to respect one of Zoltan’s motivations for harrowing the world, which is to rkgraq uvf yvsr fb gung ur jvyy unir rabhtu gvzr gb ernq rirelguvat. Is the destruction of a great civilization such a great price to pay for a prize so worthy?
It might seem a little odd that Summer jumps at the chance to be sent on a quest. After all, it’s pretty clear that Baba Yaga, a child-eating witch, might not have her best interests at heart. But a girl raised to be afraid of puddles, having discovered puddles are not a menace, will suspect that Baba Yaga isn’t as dangerous as one might think.
There’s a moral here for overprotective parents, but they probably won’t take it to heart.
I was a bit worried about tackling this because I bounced hard off the previous “young girl wanders into a secondary fantasy world” novel I tried to read. I need not have worried. Orcus is a world well into the whimsical end of the alternate universe scale; it’s what Every Heart a Doorway calls a High Nonsense world. Kingfisher avoids the obvious pitfall of twee absurdity, while at the same time eschewing the temptation to GRRM-style grim noire. The characters are neither too silly nor too loathsome; readers will care about them. To quote a children’s tale about a home invasion: the book is not too hot and not too cold, not too big and not too small. It’s just right.