When I was looking through my ebooks and came across this one, I couldn’t for the life of me remember how I acquired it. Looking at the cover I thought it might be connected to Kathleen Jennings, but turns out it’s not her art – just similar. Then eventually I realised that it came in the Hugo packet, and I had run out of time to read it before voting was complete.
T. Kingfisher is, I discovered, a nomme de plume of Ursula Vernon. I’ve read some of Vernon’s short stories, but not enough to really have a sense of what her work is like. So I had no idea what I was getting myself in for with this story.
The answer is: whimsy, and delight.
Firstly, Summer is the main character, and that’s delightful. Secondly, she has a painful childhood, because her mother is needy and overly protective. I find this quite fascinating as a way of thinking about a parent in a fairytale-is story. Not absent, not careless, not hardhearted; but the sort of parent who makes their child feel bad for wanting independence, who needs constant reassurance, and who peculiarly demand their child to be more like the adult, offering comfort. So that’s an intriguing aspect that’s introduced immediately. Which is also something I like – this is aimed, I guess, at what Americans call ‘middle grade’ readers; Summer is 12 – and so there is little beating about the bush. The story proceeds at what would be well called a brisk pace. Indeed, and thirdly, Summer has met Baba Yaga and her chicken-legged house within three pages and is off on her adventure in Orcus in chapter 3, to find her heart’s desire. Summer’s not quite sure what her heart’s desire is, but assumes she’ll know it when she finds it.
Also, she has a talking weasel to accompany her.
I told you there was whimsy.
So there are talking animals and dryads and a land that’s kind of falling apart, dandy-ish birds and terrifying fortune-telling cheeses. People who are actively trying to destroy things and a wolf that’s not just a wolf, and Summer reflecting on whether her experience in Orcus will be like an experience in Narnia. And an antelope woman.
I loved it. A lot. Kingfisher’s prose is delightful, the characters are varied and only Reginald, the dandy bird, is faintly ridiculous. While it initially seems like it might be a relatively standard portal fantasy (which would have been fine), it reminded me more of Catherynne M Valente’s Fairyland books in their self-awareness than anything else. It’s also not completely standard in the way that Summer’s quest pans out, but no way am I spoiling that. Suffice to say it left me musing.
I really enjoyed the character interactions, and the places Summer visits. I liked that Summer wasn’t always sure what to do but that she was a resourceful and sensible girl – and sometimes that meant being quite scared, as was appropriate in some of the circumstances she found herself in. She deserves to have lots of people read about her adventures.