In the stressful days of last summer, Ursula Vernon, through the pen of T. Kingfisher, started a twice-weekly fantasy serial about an eleven-year-old girl. It was not, she informed her Patreons, for middle graders, despite the title character's age.
In time, the series became the highlight of a rather lackluster few months, and patrons hugely supported a Kickstarter to have it printed in hardback with illustrations by Lauren "Luve" Henderson. I chose to wait for the bound book to arrive, instead of finishing the serial, and frequently wondered exactly what in the conclusion of the book would prove it wasn't for middle graders... would it be Baba Yaga, and her scary dual nature as cranky grandmother type and periodic sales person carnivore? Would it be tragic Donkeyskin, or the frog tree? Could it be the deceit of Antelope Women everywhere? Or, the warlike legacy of Zultan Houndbreaker and the Queen-in-Chains? No - as Tech Boy and I read the finished copy, I reconfirmed that these are deliciously scary and delightfully fanciful elements which are a hook, drawing the reader onward.
So, where might the problem lie? In the journey.
As we've discussed before, middle school is an immense time of change and pressure, and in Summer's case, her main adversary in her journey to maturation is not her peers - they barely cause a blip in Summer's mind. It is instead her mother who is her adversary, jealous of her personal thoughts, encroaching on her personal space, and unable to allow her daughter a moment's peace without her smothering hopes and terrors, all in the name of love. Like a too-small pot causing roots to be knotted and unable to take in sufficient nutrients, Summer's mother isn't allowing her to grow.
Very few contemporary middle grade novels tackle the grinding, long-term phenomenon of the parental bullying/emotionally diminishing parent and the caretaker child (maybe the last one I read was by Cynthia Ryland in the 90's). This subject seems limited to YA readership, but for many children fulfilling the complex needs of a damaged parent begins in elementary school and morphs into something burdensome and strange well before high school. Summer's needy, hyperprotective mother and the journey which Summer undertakes into another world to find a similar issue isn't something every middle grader will be able to relate to, but the way the novel is written, with excitement and danger and wry humor, I believe that plenty of tweens will relate well enough not to be bored by Summer's fear, or the lack of major battle scene. SUMMER IN ORCUS is an excellent older middle grade novel with familiar tropes and portal novel elements. Summer's quest was to find her heart's desire... and in her search, we discover the desire of the hearts of most of us. With all that being said,
Let's survey a story!
When the witch Baba Yaga walks her house into the backyard, eleven-year-old Summer enters into a bargain for her heart’s desire. Her search will take her to the strange, surreal world of Orcus, where birds talk, women change their shape, and frogs sometimes grow on trees. But underneath the whimsy of Orcus lies a persistent darkness, and Summer finds herself hunted by the monstrous Houndbreaker, who serves the distant, mysterious Queen-in-Chains…
From the Hugo and Nebula award winning author of "Digger" and "Jackalope Wives" comes a story of adventure, betrayal, and heart's desire. T. Kingfisher, who writes for children as Ursula Vernon, weaves together a story of darkness, whimsy, hope and growing things, for all the adults still looking for a door to someplace else.
Baba Yaga is as ambiguous as she is terrifying. In Slavic folklore, she's almost seen as a trickster, at times being revered as a Crone of great wisdom and insight, and in other moments, an antagonistic threat parents use to frighten their children into submission. Baba Yaga might eat you. She might beat you about the head with her pestle. She might just pat you on the head, and go away. Really, you never know. The day Summer meets Baba Yaga is one of Baba's good days, according to the skull door knocker on her chicken-legged house...which speaks to anyone unwise enough to encounter Baba Yaga's door. Summer wisely checks the lay of the land via the skull - which proves to stand her in good stead later on.
Beginning a portal fantasy with the entrance of Baba Yaga is a clear signal to readers that chancy times are ahead - things could go perfectly well, and the story wind up with a significant HEA, or ... it could all go straight down the loo pretty much immediately, with lots of lumps and bruises from a well-wielded stone mortar. I loved that Baba Yaga both begins and ends this novel, which provides a perfectly satisfying story arc, and informs us that LIFE in the real world is just as chancy as a summer's day in Orcus... Baba Yaga introduces herself to Summer for the sole purpose, she says, of offering Summer her heart's desire. Summer doesn't go looking for this boon, nor does she ask for it, nor does she know what that could possibly be. And yet, when Baba Yaga offers you something... well, if you don't know if she'll suck your marrow or send you on your way, you take it... right? Or don't you? Summer's first lesson is quickly apparent, and repeats itself through the many traveling days, Be careful what you wish for.
Through the machinations of a lit candle and an opened door, Summer is plopped into another world without a map or much of a guide but a weasel in her pocket. Surprisingly, she does have instructions of a sort - three, guiding principles by which she must view life in Orcus... and possibly elsewhere. In the real world, we often encounter guiding principles framed by persons or institutions like churches, and if we're wise, we can understand and apply them. More often, in the high chaos and noise of the world we cannot and they're true things we remember after the fact, or which echo upon reading, but are soon forgotten. Summer mainly holds onto one of the rules, 1. Don't worry about things that you cannot fix. This serves her well both in Orcus and will when she's back home again.
As Summer is ostensibly in Orcus to locate her heart's desire, she is soon confused about why she has been sent to a land which has been once torn by war, and is now not quite healed and in so much need. How is it that human hearts are meant to find their truest voice in a world so filled with other things which are broken and leaking chaos and dying? With the addition of a nattily dressed gent called Reginald (of the Almondsgrove Hoopoes) and a splendid cottage wolf to their party, readers are reminded that the world isn't all bad, and that company along the road can make most things bearable.
The world is still broken, and grows darker - and this is where Kingfisher's novel may speak more to adults. Summer is still, in spite of everything, meant to be finding her heart's desire, as we often are called on to carry on with fixing things while on a personal level we're trying hard to shut out the noise and listen for ourselves. While it might be difficult for a tween to articulate, what we want, and who we want to be is at the beating centers of all of our hearts. The worst thing about having a mother like Summer's is that Summer cannot hear her own heart - she hears her mother's. She feels her mother's worries and frequent weeping fears. She bears her mother's burdens, and her grief. Summer has to deny her own self in favor of her mother, and it is a burden both unfair, unjust, and unwieldy. What Baba Yaga does for Summer in giving her Orcus, more than anything, is give her a time away from everything she has had to carry for so long, and lets her know that it has strengthened her enough to carry a cheese knife for someone else's sake. This resonated strongly with me.
This is where the magic lies -- in T. Kingfisher's book, and in all books which carry us away, in portal fantasy in particular, which allows us to believe that things could be different, if we opened the correct wardrobe, and in Orcus in specific, where Summer finally discovers that she can be all she thought she might be when she isn't bent double under an inheritance of anxiety and depression that isn't hers to own. Summer is, by Baba Yaga's observation, "dangerously ignorant," and it's not just of the world outside of her backgarden gate -- Summer is dangerously ignorant of herself. But, it's not wholly her fault - unless she refuses to do the work of looking within to know herself. This is subtly conveyed throughout the story - Summer makes several mistakes from sheer innocence, and it nearly costs her her life in the end - but after every flub, she learns to listen to herself, to hear, and to act on her own advice. At journey's end, you cannot imagine that Summer is still the same innocent, "sweet summer child," as it were. She Knows Things. She knows herself a little better. And that cannot help but change her, for the better.
In the larger world, family is imperfect - and entangled familial relationships often a burden, to be blunt. Our world is messy, dying, and packed full of the deceitful and unkind. And yet, the journey to find one's heart's desire can still be an adventure worth taking. The act of saving one tiny part of the dying world is still an action worth taking. One frog tree, alive and well, is worth all the bruises and terror, and deceptive antelope women in the world.
Afterward, when all has been said and done, Baba Yaga is there to grant you entrance back into the world from which you came - with its insults and burdens, and deceptions and degenerations. You are home. You may not have your cheese knife, but you can manage the battles in the real world, the battles between someone else's concerns, and the ones which concern you. And knowing that, more than anything, is the summation of any heart's desire, middle grader or adult.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of a Kickstarter purchase. You can find T. Kingfisher's SUMMER IN ORCUS in ebook form on Amazon, possibly in print via Sofawolf Press or as a freebie read on the Red Wombat Studio website. Enjoy.