**spoiler alert** Due to the just-two-chapters-a-week release schedule of this book that I stumbled on just as Chapter One was posted (Arghhh! That it**spoiler alert** Due to the just-two-chapters-a-week release schedule of this book that I stumbled on just as Chapter One was posted (Arghhh! That it is NOT how I read! I do not eat my stories in dainty little bites! I gorge myself on books whole!) I had plenty of time to work on the review, and it quickly morphed into a recap with annotations. So bear with me, or skip, if you fear elongated spoilers.
This story is a homage to the subgenre of "portal fantasy" – a young person who travels through a magical portal from our world to a magical world.
Summer in Orcus starts off grounded solidly in reality as the main character, an eleven year old girl named Summer, struggles to deal with living with a mother who NEEDS HELP. Unfortunately, her mother is using the (sadly common) coping mechanism of treating her young daughter like a therapist, constantly unloading all of her problems on her, demanding a constant reassurance of love, and not letting her daughter take two steps without freaking out about danger everywhere.
Kingfisher's opening drags a bright highlighter over why being a kid can really suck, made worse by knowing stories like this play out every day, and Summer is an all too common modern character of a child struggling to grow up in a dysfunctional environment, seen in many modern fiction books today.
However, the story takes a sharp left turn into another genre entirely as Baba Yaga's chicken legged house strolls into Summer's backyard one evening.
Summer dares enter Baba Yaga's domain, and Baba Yaga, being in a good (and slightly capricious) mood, offers Summer her "heart's desire" (and a talking weasel, as a bonus). Summer isn't sure, exactly, what she wants the most, and Baba Yaga is a little too cheerful telling her that finding that out is part of the fun.
Baba Yaga then kicks her out and Summer is no longer in her backyard but some magical new place. Being a well-read child, she immediately gets it that she's in a Narnia-like situation, and just rolls with it, and the story rapidly becomes the kind of meta that results from a literate 21st century child tumbling into a fantasy book archetype.
The first people she meets is the classic trio of three older women with magic and advice, living on the fringe of civilization. These three have taken the names Donkeyskin, Boarskin and Bearskin after their respective magic cloaks. They lead Summer through their forest, filled with magic trees with leaves that change shape when they fall, becoming things like mice or lizards when they touch the ground.
But the Frog-Tree is dying, and it breaks Summer's heart to watch this particular tree unable to use its own magic properly. The trio tell Summer something is causing magical things to die, and then send her on her way, advising her to go to the “Waystation” which will help her figure out her next move.
She spends a night crossing a desert littered with “sand stars” - scorpions that glow in the dark (a scary / gorgeous piece of imagery) - and almost gets high on the dizzying mirrored sight of the star covered sky and star covered ground, a magnificent vista right out of something like Star Wars or Lord of the Rings.
On the other side Summer discovers the Wheystation and is not impressed with the cheese puns she encounters.
We meet the wheymaster, who could have stepped out of either the Land of Expectations or Diagon Alley, and we first hear about Zultan and the Queen-in-Chains. (Hah! What a title! Take that, Child-Like-Empress!)
Then Zultan and his henchman Grub and his minions show up, hunting for a human girl they hear has stumbled into Orcus, and she has to hide in a room-sized block of cheese while the wheymaster throws them off the trail. The wheymaster then gives Summer some advice on what direction to follow, using a type of prophetic cheese.
Kingfisher is clearly a major cheese lover, and while I’m rather sparing in my own cheese consumption, even I was impressed with her fantasy take on cheeses, including cheese made from the milk of nightmares, cheese aged in moonlight, cheese made with the honey of clockwork bees, and more. All these fantastic cheeses come in every imaginable (and some not so imaginable) shape, size, color, and texture.
It’s so imaginative that, despite rolling my eyes along with Summer when the scene started, I was sad when Summer had to move on from this cheese-version of Honeydukes.
Sent on her way with a cheese-sword (like a cheese knife, only bigger, you know, to deal with really big cheeses :-D) she walks through a world that is described as gorgeous as a trip to any national park, breathtaking even before the magical elements are added in.
But Zultan and his pack are hot on her heels. As she and the weasel run and hide, she grimly hangs on to the mantra that if the Pevensie kids could hack it, so can she.
Along the road Summer meets a hoopoe bird named Reginald – who delightfully talks just like Bertie Wooster – and he cheerfully offers to help her out, much to the weasel's disgust, sneering to Summer about the bird's foppish manners. But Summer is delighted by Reginald's friendliness and his flock of valet-birds that follow him around to make sure he dresses properly for dinner and such, and I was equally charmed by this avian Jeeves and Wooster.
The next day Summer realizes camping makes for a miserable morning, even in an enchanted land. Kingfisher, in a hilarious mini narrative rant, goes on about how there is absolutely nothing poetic about dew, it's just cold water that gets everywhere, and she has clearly been on a few primitive camping trips herself after reading too much Byron.
Summer, cold and damp, braves on, and stumbles on another pun in the form of a "were-house" –fearsome wolf by day, cozy cottage by night –currently trapped by house-hunters.
Kingfisher balances out her howlingly bad puns by having Summer groan each time she comes across one. But the "were-house" turns out to be more than just a pun. Kingfisher takes the idea of Baba Yaga's walking house and teases that idea out – what if it were one of a species? Wild houses, tame houses, herds of houses on migration; it's so stupid its brilliant, and what a wonderful adult fantasy that you could walk out one day and wrangle a house, rather than deal with mortgages and real estate agents. Yes please!
Summer agrees to free him because she had a moment of almost acting just like her mother, and the thought of her mother having already programmed her that deeply pushes her straight into acting brave, and the were-house joins the group.
Then Summer sees her pursuers up close, all riding “Sleipnirians”, which Kingfisher borrows from Celtic mythology and makes weirder with not just eight legs, but also eight eyes and an all over sickening distortion by the mind-bending blurring of horse and spider.
Reginald tries to throw them off while Summer hides. Watching Grub suspiciously question Reginald, Summer is willing to admit she is scared, but knows the right thing to do is turn herself in before her new friend gets killed on her behalf. Before she has to find out if she can follow through on this, there is a brief scuffle that leaves one of the valet-birds dead and the hunters ride on. Safe momentarily, but the stakes have been raised.
And then the stakes get raised again as they find more background characters have been killed by Zultan’s men. Summer is horrified that people died because of her, and the wolf has to firmly tell her that she didn’t do anything, nor should she take on other people’s guilt.
Summer wants to take action, and decides to somehow help the sick Frog-Tree. Reginald advises seeking out a forester he knows of, so the group head towards a nearby town on the way to the forester.
As they continue on, they all give Summer more details about Orcus, and it is a major relief to have a change in tone after a scene with a bunch of dead extras, and it’s fascinating world-building. As much as this follows the pattern of lands like Narnia, Oz and Fantastica, it is an original and creative version of a fantasy land, and we see more of that creativity as Summer enters Fen-town and we get all the delights of a fantasy market town, like Milo arriving in Dictionopolis.
There is also layer of bureaucratic red tape wrapped around the magical elements, as we learn the creatures of Orcus are just as burdened by special permits and proper licenses as we are in this world. In fact, Summer bluffs her way through Customs based on a recent trip with her mother to the DMV, much to her little gang’s delight.
Next Summer and her group meet the Forester, a woman who used to be a dragon, but her body was stolen from her by a girl who wished to be a dragon, resulting in a body switch, and now the Forester is stuck in the body of a human with the heart of a dragon. It’s even worse than it sounds.
She offers Summer guidance both in immediate and general terms; her own knowledge of what can be changed and what must be accepted was hard won, making her advice all the more valuable. She also knows that the Queen-in-Chains is sending out wasps that are causing magical things to die, so they have to find a wasp to follow back to the queen.
But first they stop at Reginald’s family home for advice and supplies from dear pater. And, oh my, his father's manor is the bird version of Totleigh Towers that I never knew I needed but am now completely in love with!
Reginald’s father gives Summer some more information about Zultan and more backstory, and Kingfisher just about breaks my heart with the tragedy of the dogs of Orcus.
There’s a detour from the action as Summer is invited to attend a ball, showing more of the morès of Orcus’s aviary culture. But the party is ruined by another attack from Zultan, almost managing to burn down the family manor, and Summer now has two badass geese guards, assigned by Reginald’s father to protect the little group.
They travel to the Great Pipes, a mountain-sized cactus, with the inside hollowed out to hold an entire city! Here Summer meets the Priestess of the Pipes, who reminds her strongly of her teacher – but the resemblance only goes so far, and Summer experiences her first true betrayal, and Kingfisher writes exquisitely of how mental pain can be astonishingly like physical pain as Summer tries to grasp how in the space of just a few moments everything goes horribly wrong.
And quickly goes from horribly wrong to horribly weird as Summer learns more than she wants about Zultan, the kind of villain who likes to have a civilized conversation with the hero over tea and explain earnestly that they are not truly wicked, and, indeed, there is no good or evil, only power, and all the usual excuses.
He is a quietly insane bookworm who immolates people because he “got in the habit.” Scary!
Then Summer meets another high ranking minion, an antelope-woman, who is cheerfully chaotic in a way that would make your average trickster god sit up and take notice.
She delights in telling Summer a creation myth about Orcus and why her own people are mistrusted, while also describing all the terrible things she might do to Summer, clearly enjoying the chance to mar a piece of Summer’s innocence the same way someone else would delight in carving their initials into a new jar of peanut butter.
Still, she offers escape, and Summer takes it, learning the awful fact that sometimes all possible choices in a given situation are bad. An escape follows that involves more trudging than chases, and Summer is reunited with her little group, who all immediately run off the antelope-woman with threats and curses and shower Summer in love and reassurance, leaving her felling guilty and confused, but also loved for once, instead of smothered.
And, even better, her group caught one of the magic-killing wasps, so they are off find the queen!
But the house-hunters again try to snatch the were-house, but Summer manages to fight back - not with fire and sword - but with the iciest grown-up words she can hurl at them, (words like ‘registered’, ‘permit’, ‘authorities’, etc.), and gets them to back off. It’s a lesson everyone could stand to learn young – act like you have the strongest legal position and you’ll probably get away with it.
But there’s no talking their way out of things as Zultan, Grub and the henchmen attack, and there is time only for the briefest of strategic assessments for where’s a good place to take a stand, and Kingfisher manages to capture the frantic confusion of a fight scene dead on while still making it possible to follow the action.
When Summer sees Grub down, she takes all her anger and fear and shoves it into him via the cheese sword, not ashamed to attack someone while he is down, because he is a homicidal maniac. That briefly makes things worse, as his inner demon is literally let loose, but she takes that on pretty well too, and soon only Zultan is left, morosely looking at the carnage as if it has nothing to do with him, and takes off.
They won the battle, but it cost them dearly, and they have to choose between following Zultan, continuing to seek out the Queen-in-Chains, or just giving up, and as much as Summer wants to give up, the urge to see it through, and to make sure the death of those who just died has meaning, is stronger and they soon find the Queen-in-Chains’ palace.
The queen lives in a cathedral-sized wasp nest, and I bet this is Kingfisher-the-gardener writing rather than Kingfisher-the-author. Oh sure, bees and their hives are all well and good, but a wasp nest can get ugly real fast.
And we meet the Queen-in-Chains.
She’s a dragon.
In fact, she’s the human who stole the dragon body from the Forester, and it has driven her nearly insane. Summer realizes the dragon needs someone to talk to, so she resumes the old role she played with her mother of making soothing noises and reassurances while coaxing the whole story from her. It’s a great deviation from the usual narrative to have the protagonist sit down and talk to the Big Bad Monster and ask what’s wrong rather than attacking.
It turns out she has no control over her dragon body, and she begged to be chained to stop mindlessly ravaging, but Zultan used her before chaining her, and she is terrified he will unleash her horrific destruction again.
In the end, all she needs is a reassurance that everything-is-going-to-be-OK, a line Summer is well rehearsed in saying.
But leaving the queen’s nest-castle Summer walks smack into Zultan, and they have an old fashioned villain/hero standoff, with Summer being reasonable and angry and Zultan being insane and hyper-civilized.
She survives, with the help of her friends, and, thankfully, Zultan does not, and they turn back to somberly retrace their steps homeward.
Back at the beginning, the Frog Tree dies, but Summer is able to plant a seed that springs immediately to life to a Frog-Sapling, and she finally feels ready to go home.
Baba Yaga congratulates her at the portal and Summer angrily demands that she be allowed to remember what happened in a scene that happily tips most fantasy ending troupes on their head. Summer returns home, not happy – but not sad either – to know someday she will have to leave her home permanently, despite her mother’s fears.
Summer is an up-to-date example of the typical portal-fantasy main character, markedly contrasted from her 19th and 20th century predecessors.
Summer doesn't stride with the confidence born of being part of the top portion of the mighty British Empire like Alice and Wendy, and she isn't eager to do something after being told to stay out of the way and let the grownups handle things, like the Pevensie kids. But neither is she bored with American post-WWII affluence, like Milo. And Summer has issues, but she's fully aware of them, and isn't avoiding them, like Bastian.
(Note: I am purposefully not including Dorothy because she did not choose to walk through her portal, but was instead forcibly dragged by that tornado.)
But what is most revealing about her character takes place early on, when Summer is told to choose a candle:
There was a little round table in the middle of the room, and on it stood a dozen candles. They were all colors and sizes. A few of them had been melted partway down. Several were shaped like animals. Summer’s hand hovered over a silver unicorn, with the wick coming out of its horn, but then settled on a plain beeswax frog. The wick had been burned down a little way already and beads of honey-colored wax ran down its sides.
Summer chooses the frog, and is complimented on her choice. Unicorns versus frogs. Let's unpack that, shall we? >cracks knuckles<
A unicorn is a nonexistent creature, a wish for impossible things.
At best, a unicorn represents the human desire to try to go beyond what we think is possible – to push all boundaries and achieve greatness. The unicorn makes a wonderful mascot for the Boston Marathon, as humans each year attempt to break records of what the human body can do in terms of strength and speed, just by putting one foot in front of the other.
At worst, the unicorn represents things that simply cannot exist, and make us depressed by the fact we can’t have them. A unicorn is that Manic Pixie Dream Girl, a ridiculous standard of physically impossible waist measurements and mentally unhealthy mindsets. A “unicorn” is often also used in business terms to describe a perfect company. Many real life companies, especially in Silicon Valley, have been called "unicorns" - except most turn out to be just ordinary nags that cannot magically give every stockholder a billion dollars.
Meanwhile, a frog is a deceptively ordinary beast, full of disregarded potential.
Frogs are common props for female practitioners of the magical arts, from Shakespeare's three witches cooking up spells to J.K. Rowling's young Lily coming home from Hogwarts with teacups full of frogs, much to her sister's jealously. A frog tells Sleeping Beauty's mom she is with child, frogs are known to become princes in other fairy tales, and Queen Elizabeth I nicknamed one of her (many) suitors Monsieur Frog, as a playful suggestion that his love for her might be real – because a frog's love is considered to be noticeably more constant than a fickle unicorn's affection.
In nature, frogs can be a source of food, or used as a weapon, depending on the type, they are the go-to example in the schoolroom for how cycles of nature work, and their ability to lie dormant as eggs throughout droughts are practically miraculous. They are an ordinary, common miracle, and hence overlooked.
Frogs are a symbol of birth, transitions, sexuality and fertility. They show that someone can turn from one thing to become a completely new thing in a very real way.
Unicorns might die (or at least throw a hissy fit) if their mane gets mused, but frogs will dig into the mud and survive, willing to do what it takes to live and thrive, even if that means not looking pretty.
Summer chooses the frog because she would rather have real, solid change in her life than a false veneer of magical transformation that is all style and no substance. Summer desperately wants to be an adult with all the agency that comes with it rather than be a little girl playing tea time with her dolls who has little say in all decisions in her life from bedtime to living arrangements.
Summer doesn't want a holiday from real life. Quite simply, she wants to grow up....more
A group of aliens are thinking of dismantling their empire and joining the Stryx network. Lucky, lucky, lucky Kelley gets the job of hosting the visit A group of aliens are thinking of dismantling their empire and joining the Stryx network. Lucky, lucky, lucky Kelley gets the job of hosting the visiting ambassadors from the empire, who, for the most part, are the most obnoxious house guests you could possibly ask for.
On a space station filled with species of all sorts, we get some major cultural clashes as the species from this empire have some very different notions about “acceptable behavior.”
Kelly’s trying to keep the peace between various groups as hosts and guests are quickly at each other’s throats, never mind internal bickering, and the all-powerful AI’s are being just a teensy bit more opaque than usual.
All just the usual politics for Union Station!
Meanwhile… Kelly’s son is still in touch with a certain junior queen, suggesting some interesting developments down the line. ...more
I’m reminded of the story of the two high school straight A honors students who decide that, logically, after the prom would be the most romantic poin I’m reminded of the story of the two high school straight A honors students who decide that, logically, after the prom would be the most romantic point to consummate their relationship. So they booked a moderately priced hotel room (neither too expensive nor too sketchy) to avoid interruption from siblings and parents – and spend most of the night trying to figure out how to properly put on the condom, getting into a lengthy debate on its history and mechanics – and both fall asleep before any consummating can take place.
Here, Prince Charming and Cinderella aren’t quite that pedantic, but they manage to come up with quite a lot of excuses before they start tearing each other’s clothes off.
This story is best described as Ever After meets Pride and Prejudice with some erotic spice thrown in for flavor.
Just as Ever After took place in a fairy tale version of Renaissance France, so too does this take place in a never-never land version of Regency England, with enough eligible aristocrats and royalty running around to satisfy any romance novel.
In this version of Cinderella, our heroine, like Drew Barrymore’s take on the character, is sticking around to try and keep the family estate running, despite her step-mother’s horrible attitude and worse budgeting. Instead of two stepsisters, one mean, one silly, we just have one silly step sister, and she is so adorably silly you want to give her a reality show and watch her and her adorable pack of tiny dogs just be adorable.
Most of the plot takes place at the prince’s castle, and its rather like Jane Austin and P.G. Woodhouse got together to describe the kind of weekend party madness that only the upper class Brits can produce. There are a lot of characters to keep track of, unhelpfully involving about 4 generations worth of uncles and nephews, but all definitely add to the fluffy flavor.
There are parties, balls, love affairs, steamy bedroom scenes, jeweled dog collars, ball gowns – both padded and cinched, upper class nitwits, archeology, Greek myths, Russian royalty, and overall an adorably good time! ...more
I'm a cat person, not a dog person, but even I had to laugh at his dog's hilarious antics as well felt my heart strings being tugged as he begs the Un I'm a cat person, not a dog person, but even I had to laugh at his dog's hilarious antics as well felt my heart strings being tugged as he begs the Universe to please let his dog live as long as possible. ...more
First, a comment on the cover: I don’t like it. I really don't like this trend of extreme close-ups on covers - its as bad as the headless woman shots First, a comment on the cover: I don’t like it. I really don't like this trend of extreme close-ups on covers - its as bad as the headless woman shots, only these make me think she's trying to sell me lipstick, shampoo, or contacts.
Next, my favorite line in the book:
"Don't ever trust anyone who's writing a book. They make up lies for a living."
I want to get this on a t-shirt, fridge magnet, bumper sticker, and quite possibly chisel it onto my grandfather's tombstone.
Ok, my actual review follows:
The Law of Chekov’s Gun informs us that a gun hung on the wall in Act 1 will be fired by Act 3. In the romance version of this, if a girl and boy have a fight the first time they meet in Act 1 they will be making out by Act 3.
Clement-Moore takes this to humorous heights as her main Girl and Boy characters have quite the heated debate when they first meet, made all the funnier by the fact it starts with the girl jumping up and down in her underwear while yelling at some cows to get away from her car (in makes sense in context.)
Ghosts and goats, cows and cowboys, and archeology and parapsychology all follow, with some beer and barbeque thrown in, and of course, well meaning family members driving our main characters crazy.
Clement-Moore should consider working for the Texas Tourism Bureau, because she can really sell her setting – the rural land she describes becomes a character in its own right, and one that sounds to be very much worth meeting. ...more
**spoiler alert** Yes, the death is telegraphed hundreds of pages beforehand, and no, I'm not a dog lover... but I still cried when Stella had to be p**spoiler alert** Yes, the death is telegraphed hundreds of pages beforehand, and no, I'm not a dog lover... but I still cried when Stella had to be put down.
And yes, this is wrapped up tidy with a pretty little bow at the end, but what the hey, it was the 90's - no one had discovered gritty realism yet....more
In the mood for some Southern Gothic? Romances, tragedies, mysteries, magic and ghosts abound in this YA paranormal mystery set in the Old South.
SylvIn the mood for some Southern Gothic? Romances, tragedies, mysteries, magic and ghosts abound in this YA paranormal mystery set in the Old South.
Sylvie Davis was a soloist for the American Ballet Company, a prima ballerina at age 17. Then ‘The Accident’ leaves her with a limp and a dead career. Sylvie’s post-surgical attitude is 1/3 extreme teenage angst, and 2/3’s Dr. House’s my-leg-hurts-so-I-will-hurt-everyone-else-verbally. It’s painful to read the opening as the first person POV details both the physical pain in her leg and the emotional pain of losing what she had valued most.
Our bitter heroine is sent – exiled – from her Manhattan lifestyle to a tiny Alabama town to spend part of her summer with a cousin she has met exactly once. “A change of scenery,” and other various euphemisms are used, but everyone is worried that she is, at worst, suicidal, and, at best, in need of a new attitude, and must needs be watched closely while her mother and new stepfather go on their honeymoon.
Her initial problems, such as being a vegetarian in a household that shops at the Piggly-Wiggly, are soon superseded by a very big worry that she has gone insane. After all, sane people don’t see visions of southern belles and Confederate generals, right? Right??
Sylvie begins to dig into the history of her ancestral home, unearthing some strange secrets, as well as a hunky but mysterious geologist student from Wales who refuses to explain just why exactly he is so interested in some certain local rocks. Meanwhile, the local kids are acting oddly, as if hiding secrets of their own. And their leader, golden boy Shawn Maddox, turns on the charm in a way that leaves the reader wanting to hit him with an anti-smarmy stick.
After much sleuthing, all secrets come to light at about the same time in the last act, in a truly terrifying scene that played out like hurricane of ghosts.
The story is a long set up, and the words ‘don’t’ and ‘trust’ get old really fast, but all of the characters’ voices and the setting feel extremely real. Lots of little details are sprinkled throughout – some play out later as part of the mystery, but some are just the wonderful touch of a writer who knows how to pull an imaginary town out of her head and make you think it’s real.
Throughout it all, Sylvie has a trusty sidekick in the shape of Gigi, a diva of a little dog who accepts the world’s slavish praise as her just due but is also quick to come to her mistress’s defense – and don’t let her size fool you! I can’t think of any other dog characters that exuded as much wonderful personality as Gigi does. She makes the book as much as dog lover’s book as much as it is a romance or mystery or paranormal book.
On a total side note, I really loved that the magic spells were being chanted in what the character Rhys called: "really bastardized Welsh." A nice change of pace from the usual Greek, Latin or Hebrew.
If a high school English teacher never made you read Tennyson, Google "The Splendor Falls by Lord Tennyson" to see what the title is refering to.
The story needed more dogs - with a title such as this, I was expecting more about her lives as dogs, and perhaps more about how the curse itself wasThe story needed more dogs - with a title such as this, I was expecting more about her lives as dogs, and perhaps more about how the curse itself was constructed.
Its odd how she speaks as one person throughout the whole book, then at the end splits off into two people, sort of....more