Lance Lee

Poet, Playwright, Novelist

Book covers
Book covers
Orpheus Rising cover

Orpheus Rising

Pub. 2021

Review: Editor’s Pick, Publishers Weekly (Booklife)

Lee’s curious, myth-touched adventure, which reads like a blend of The Phantom Tollbooth, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and a modern-day Orpheus story, finds a lonely boy named Sam stuck in the middle of nowhere with a father, John, who grows greyer by the day. The two spend their time silently doing chores, and every night they share the same terrifying nightmare, though neither speaks of it. One day a mysterious book arrives, and Sam discovers that what happens in it can come true in real life. Inspired, he uses its strange power to change everything for himself and his father, opening the door to a dangerous world where nothing is as it seems. With the help of Sam’s imagination they team up—John somewhat reluctantly—with a wise and distinguished elephant who loves to dance. Together, the three embark on a quest to save Sam’s mother from the afterlife.

Though aimed at middle grade readers, Orpheus Rising at times feels like a mature philosophical contemplation of death, steeped in magical realism. There are also moments of true terror, and some of the imagery— coupled with the book’s fantastical yet ominous illustrations—might be unsuitable for readers who scare easily. At the same time, the stakes can be almost comically low, as when an enchanted object renders any conflict avoidable. Elements of the plot require a thorough understanding of the rules of poker and the intricacies of sailing. Real emotion powers Sam and John’s adventure, their journey as much about the relationship between father and son as it is finding Sam’s mother. Sam and John begin the novel torn apart by her absence, which John spent his entire childhood refusing to explain. Their quest to save her teaches each about the power of honesty, trust, and love. Lee’s vivid imagination shines through each chapter of their quest, and his quirky characters will keep readers who appreciate fabulist adventure hooked throughout.

Takeaway: Imaginative and emotional, this underworld adventure offers thrills, chills, and insightful lessons.

Great for fans of: Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, Roald Dahl.

Editor’s Pick, Publishers Weekly (Booklife)

Kirkus Reviews

Based on the myth of Orpheus, Lee’s fantasy novel follows a boy’s quest with his father to retrieve his mother from the afterlife.

Ten-year-old Sam lives with his father, John, in an unquestioned, unvarying routine; “They simply thought of this gray existence as life.” When a blank book is mailed to them, however, Sam discovers that whatever he draws and writes in it becomes real, like when he sketches a lavish tent inhabited by a singing, dancing, wise elephant in Edwardian dress whom he names Lepanto. Playing cards with Lepanto, Sam sees a vision of his mother, who’s whispering, “Come and get me,” although—as he finally learns from John—she died years ago. Encouraged by Lepanto to trust his no-longer-blank book and his imagination, Sam determines to bring his mother back from the Dread City, telling his disbelieving father, “I’m shaping events. And I say we go.” Although Sam and John can count on help from the book and Lepanto, their long journey through the Far Land of Fear is beset with dangers, like agents of the Dread City who want to drag them into despair. Can they succeed where Orpheus failed? In his debut children’s book, poet and playwright Lee writes a wildly imaginative, entertaining adventure story with deep foundations both in the lush realm of mythos and poignant human emotions. Beyond that, Lee dares to give Sam’s quest an ending that takes seriously the Elephant’s insistence on the reality of imagination, making the story even more powerful. In her debut book, artist LeBow provides woodcutlike illustrations with rich blacks, curving white lines, and a remarkable, charged sense of mythic power that marries well with the novel.

An extraordinarily beautiful, touching adventure that can stand with the classics of children’s literature.

Kirkus Reviews

Indie Reader Review

ORPHEUS RISING is a haunting, dreamlike retelling of the Greek myth Orpheus and Eurydice, filled with inventive world-building and supplemented by surreal illustrations.

Midwest Book Review

Orpheus Rising By Sam And His Father, John / With The Help Of A Very Wise Elephant/ Who Likes To Dance is a modern rendition of the Orpheus myth. It blends philosophical reflection with an inspection of loss and whimsy, as experienced by ten-year-old Sam.

While readers might think this translates to a children's book, be advised that the parable and meaning of Orpheus Rising is designed to appeal not just to kids, but many an adult reader, who will find its special blend of fantasy, philosophical inspection, and adventure equally engaging.

Many vivid scenes are presented in the course of this epic journey, as when Lepanto, Sam, and John's yacht sails through an ocean of floating faces..."faces of every imaginable variety dotting the ocean, round, flat, wet, floating faces that kept up a continuous chatter unless disturbed by the yacht. “Fine day,” one said. “I’ve seen worse,” another replied. “Beautiful.” “Ohh… How I like to crest!” “I like the troughs, myself.” “Never down but up.” “Never up but down.” “Fine weather.” “You’re looking well.”

As ocean fades to desert journeys, evading pursuers, and navigating strange worlds, readers of all ages are treated to a blend of poetic imagery, nonstop action, and adventure centered on the unlikely relationship between a well-dressed dancing elephant and his charges.

Lance Lee's story is hard to easily categorize—and that is one of its charms. Fantasy readers will appreciate the whimsical world he creates, poetry enthusiasts will relish the metaphors and descriptions in prose that form the backbone of adventure, and children (as well as adults) will value the multifaceted action that keeps them guessing about relationships, outcomes, and the story's outcome.

With all these elements intersecting in a satisfyingly vivid manner, it's easy to highly recommend Orpheus Rising By Sam And His Father, John / With The Help Of A Very Wise Elephant/ Who Likes To Dance as a standout from the crowd, even if its exuberant story defies simple categorization. This translates to an expansive audience who will appreciate its charm.

Diane Donavon, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review

Publishers Weekly (Booklife) – Critic's Report

Plot: This is a charming and exquisitely written reimagining of the Orpheus myth with more than one important incongruity. In this version, the Orpheus character, John, has somehow lost his wife and he and his 10-year-old son, Sam, struggle to cope as their lives trudge on. Living on an isolated farm in Maine, the two have fallen into a dull, if somewhat idiosyncratic, daily routine that holds their lives together, until one day the postman delivers a book that changes their lives in ways they could never have foretold as the boundaries between reality and imagination, between waking and dreaming, dissolve completely.

Prose/Style: The language of this imaginative novel is wonderfully rich, and sentences flow with uncommon grace.

Originality: This is an adventure story full of utterly impossible events and utterly possible psychological truths interwoven so expertly that the reader is happy to suspend disbelief and go along on the journey. This reimagining of the Orpheus myth, illustrated with excellent woodcuts by Ellen Raquel LeBow, examines questions of life, death, and survivorship in the gentlest possible way.

Character Development/Execution: At its heart, this novel is about change, about what it takes to rekindle desire and a will to live after a death that could easily envelop those who most loved the person. Told from Sam’s point of view, the story examines the changes he must endure and instigate in order to achieve the growth that will save him and his father from fading to gray in their grief.

• Plot/Idea: 10 out of 10
• Originality: 10 out of 10
• Prose: 10 out of 10
• Character/Execution: 10 out of 10
• Overall: 10.00 out of 10

Publishers Weekly (Booklife)

LitPick Review

Lance Lee’s Orpheus Rising is a suspenseful fantasy that is based on the Greek myth about Orpheus losing his wife Euridice to a snake bite and his attempt to rescue her from Hades. In Mr. Lee’s modern story, Sam and his father John live alone, study for school, and do chores day after day. At night, they keep having strange dreams neither one understands. They also have a quirky newspaper delivery man who taunts them about having no mother in the house. Sam wonders what happened to her, but he doesn’t want to ask questions that will hurt his father. One day the newspaperman gives them a fancy book with blank pages in it. Sam quickly realizes whatever he draws in it comes to life, and written stories about each one even magically appear. His father insists this is not possible, so they argue. In a particularly tense moment, Sam confronts his father about what happened to his mother. John’s answer is for Sam to go outside and play. Eventually, John starts looking for Sam and follows him to the beach. Surprisingly, he sees that a picture from the book has become real! He finds Sam in an Arabian tent with a wise dancing elephant they name Lepanto. While playing poker, Sam’s mother Madelyn appears on one of the cards begging for help, so John reluctantly tells Sam that she got sick when he was young and went to Dread City after she died. John hasn’t known how to live to the fullest ever since. Now Sam is convinced they should rescue her. With the on and off again help of the magic book’s pictures, John, Sam, and Lepanto wind up on a once in a lifetime adventure. Their journey is as complicated and unpredictable as it possibly can be. Crossing the Far Land of Fear to get to Dread City is difficult. Each step of the way, servants from Dread City also either follow them or try to thwart their progress. Not knowing how everything will work out is agonizing for them sometimes, but they face each problem the best they can. Through it all, they learn invaluable lessons about love, trust, hope, strength, sacrifice, and commitment. This book has so many surprises that readers will remember it for a long time!

Jonny, 15 at time of review, LitPick

Clarion Review

Orpheus Rising is a magical, memorable middle grade adventure that handles a serious topic with narrative grace.

Lance Lee’s Orpheus Rising is a modern allegorical retelling of the Orpheus myth. In it, a father-son team is pitted against the dark forces of the afterlife; they seek to rescue their deceased wife and mother from the clutches of purgatory. John and Sam still grieve over Madelyn five years after her death. They hide their pain by sticking to a strict routine on their seaside farm, but they have shared, haunting dreams in which they are taunted. These dreams stop with the appearance of a mysterious blank book that Sam doodles in; his drawings turn into reality.

John and Sam—along with a magical dancing elephant, Lepanto, who was drummed up by Sam’s imagination—embark on an adventure to the Far Land of Fear and Dread City, hoping to bring Madelyn back to the land of the living. During their trip, their fears, desires, and wildest imaginings come alive. But dark forces of the underworld pursue them, hoping to stop them from crossing the boundary between life and death.

This allegorical novel explores grief, sacrifice, and compassion. John and Sam are faced with conflicts that require their cunning, creative wordplay and imaginations, and even sacrifices, before they are to continue. Descriptions of their travels are spread across chapters, as they face tempests and, in a Sea of Faces, give in to mental exhaustion. Still, their responses to situations result in some levity: they respond with a collective “ohhh” when a ship appears about to crash into a cliff, and when a storm threatens to capsize them.

John, who begins the story as tragic and flawed, redeems himself during his adventures in the underworld, becoming a reluctant hero. Sam acts as his conscience and guide; his childlike enthusiasm combines with his dogmatic belief in their quest. Though imbued with magical powers, Lepanto also reckons with himself, confronting his mental fallibility under conditions of isolation and stress. John and Lepanto’s exchanges are antagonistic at first, though they become more like friends later.

This is an imaginative novel that’s full of terrifying imagery, as of a barren island whose colors are searing violet, red, and brown. Witches bake children to stone, and misshapen men with purple noses, beet-red faces, and mismatched limbs haunt John and Sam. Dread City is constructed as a gray purgatory whose inhabitants are frozen before death. Black-and-white illustrations come throughout; they resemble wood carvings and reinforce the foreboding atmosphere of the story.

Orpheus Rising is a magical, memorable middle grade adventure than handles a serious topic with narrative grace.

Nancy Powell, for Clarion Review

Self-Publishing Review

A masterful retelling of a lesser-known myth, Orpheus Rising by Lance Lee places a striking modern lens on the timeless struggles of self-control, sacrifice, grief, and acceptance.

John is a stymied writer who shares a small house with his son, Sam, along with sharing a deep and pervasive emptiness – his wife and Sam’s mother, Madelyn, was taken too soon. However, when a mysterious self-writing book arrives at their door, one that allows them to dictate their dreams, or even bring them to life, the story opens up into a uniquely imaginative world.

After entering the realm of Sam’s imagination, they encounter an Edwardian elephant with a smoking habit, a sharp tongue, and riddles aplenty for the pair to unravel. It also becomes clear that Madelyn’s disappearance may have been magical in nature, and Sam becomes determined to be reunited with the mother he hardly remembers. Thus begins an epic quest over land and sea that will test both John and Sam, as they fearlessly write their own future.

The relationship between father and son is one with endless nuance to explore, as is the internal relationship of a widower embarking on a potentially futile quest, and there a deeply emotional throughline permeates this story. Capturing the authenticity of stoicism is a challenge, especially without making John into a stereotypical, bitter father figure, but Lee embraces John’s cracks and flaws, his self-doubt, and guilt. The vulnerability of the central characters, and the honesty that spills so easily between them, bring the powerful themes of this remixed myth into sharp focus. Open communication, placing trust in others, finding hidden strengths, and facing long-buried fears are just some of the messages painting these pages. Artfully decorated with evocative etchings, or linocuts, the formatting, title, style, and execution of the book make it all the more moody and enigmatic, though the cover could be stronger. From simple silhouettes to more intricate pieces, the illustrations inside casually demand a reader take a second or even third look. The writing reflects this same allure, as Lee is playfully experimental with the prose, unafraid to bend conventionality in both language and format: “Sam’s, brighter, seemed troubled by some puzzle he couldn’t solve or forget. It was impossible to say whether they echoed the land, or the land them.” Sometimes this stretches the rules of grammar a bit too far, but an author who painstakingly crafts so many lines, imbuing them with lyricism and rhythm, deserves to have his words read slow, like poetry, regardless of whether the target audience is young readers.

That said, there are some short and choppy sections of narration, often in the midst of more action-packed sequences, that don’t carry the same polished weight. These weak points are infrequent, but tend to occur when scenes start to drag in pace, or when conversations become redundant. Lee generally does an excellent job of keeping pace with the wild speed of a child’s imagination, but some additional tightening could make the flow even better.

All told, Orpheus Rising is a uniquely imagined and visionary work of fiction. The multilayered messaging, the blurring between dream and reality, and the endless creativity on bold display make this mytho-magical novel a pleasure to read for children and adults alike.

Five Star Readers' Favorite Reviews:

Reviewed By Pikasho Deka for Readers’ Favorite

If you love to read epic fantasy adventure stories, grab yourself a copy of Lance Lee's Orpheus Rising. Ten-year-old Sam lives a humdrum life alongside his father, John. Feeling isolated and lonely, Sam and John start having nightmares where they share the same scenario. After the newspaper delivery man, Mr. Nicholas, hands over a mysterious book to John, Sam discovers that whatever he draws or writes in the book comes true. When a dancing elephant in an Edwardian suit comes to life, Sam and John realize that they live in Sam's imagination. Sam names the elephant Lepanto, and the three of them undertake an epic quest to rescue Sam's mother, Madelyn, from Dread City while traversing a Far Land of Fear. But they must brave an Upside-Down ocean, a Sea of Faces, a riddle-loving snake, and much more.

Author Lance Lee's whimsical fantasy adventure tale blurs the line between imagination and reality, enchanting you through a wide range of emotions. Orpheus Rising fills you with a sense of wonder and awe, deftly showcasing the importance of believing in your dreams and pushing yourself to attain them. The contrast between Sam's and John's personalities makes for an interesting dynamic. While John, at times, seems to succumb to the struggles of their journey, Sam continues to carve himself a path out of sheer will and vivid imagination. The illustrations by Ellen Raquel LeBow provide an added visual aesthetic to the story. I thoroughly enjoyed Orpheus Rising, and I highly recommend it to young adults.

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Pikasho Deka, Readers’ Favorite
Reviewed By Emily-Jane Hills Orford for Readers’ Favorite

Life is a journey. No one understands this better than ten-year-old (almost eleven) Sam and his father, John. They are destined for a journey of widely imaginative proportions as the two set off to rescue Sam’s mother, Madelyn, from “Far Land of Fear” and “Dread City.” Could this journey take them to the afterlife, a dangerous, fearful world where only those who have died can venture and never return? Written for the adventurous and imaginative reader of all ages, Lance Lee’s Orpheus Rising is a legend, a mythological adventure set in the modern world. In Greek mythology, Orpheus mourns the tragic death of his wife, Eurydice. In his grief, he ventures into Hades (hell) to reclaim her. Taking this theme and plot into a modern setting, the author has expertly woven a tale of grief leading to fantastical adventures that parallel the original Orpheus legend. Sam and his father, John, are grief-stricken over the loss of Sam’s mother and they can barely function without her. Following dreams (that they both share), a mysterious and magical book, and the overpowering desire to restore Sam’s mother to their lives, the father-son duo go on almost unbelievable adventures, not so different from other classics like Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.

Using interesting number associations, like the ever-powerful number three, incorporating complex, multidimensional words like ubiquitous, and the constant reference to time (perhaps like the number three this is a biblical reference that stipulates there is a time (season) for everything), this book reads like a classical era legend, a myth of many proportions. It’s also something like the complex card game of poker; each plays an educated move with multiple strategic elements. And, then there’s the Book – the mysterious book that arrives in the mail and ultimately leads them on unfathomable adventures, good and bad, until they find the ultimate treasure: Sam’s mother. The Book, another biblical reference to the Book that leads readers on adventures that are both good and bad? Ultimately, the story and plot, driven by one specific goal, are powered by love. Lance Lee’s Orpheus Rising is a compassionate and fascinating tale of mythological proportions.

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Pikasho Deka, Readers’ Favorite

Orpheus Rising: By Sam And His Father, John, With Some Help From A Very Wise Elephant Who Likes to Dance

Lance Lee; illustrated by Ellen Raquel LeBow

Lance Lee’s fairytale—essentially a whimsical reimagining of the Orphic myth—follows 10-year-old Sam and his father into an imaginary otherworld where they attempt to locate and save Sam’s beloved, deceased mother.

Sam lives with his father in the countryside, where—when he’s not being homeschooled—he’s kept busy doing chores, including milking the cow, collecting eggs from the chickens, and managing the garden. As busy as he is, Sam’s life is empty. His writer father John is mired in a soul-crushing depression (living a “gray existence”), and whenever Sam asks where his mother is, John won’t give him an answer.

When a mysterious blank book arrives in the mail and Sam draws in it, his drawings inexplicably become reality, and Sam and his father, with the help of a dancing elephant dressed in an Edwardian suit and matching vest, set out on an epic quest to bring his mother back from beyond the grave.

His mother is in a hellish place called Dread City; to get there, the unlikely trio must survive numerous challenges, such as crossing a nightmarish sea of faces and escaping marauding centaurs.

The story’s lyrical writing style and surreal nature make for an effortlessly page-turning read, although a few sequences run too long. The lessons the characters learn during the journey are also noteworthy, as father and son come to understand the healing capacity of honesty and trust, and embrace their own inner strengths.

Although tonally comparable to Frank. L. Baum’s classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the raw emotional intensity and thematic force is the story’s real power. “A life lived without love,” says Sam’s father, “without even the desire for love, is a life without meaning.”

This is an action-packed, heartfelt romp through a young boy’s imagination, complemented with striking illustrations. Think of it as L. Frank Baum falling down Lewis Carroll’s rabbit hole into the afterlife. It’s sure to entertain readers of all ages.

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Blueink Review