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.