Voyages in the Underworld of Orpheus Black, by Marcus Sedgwick and Julian Sedgewick, illustrated by Alexis Deacon

Voyages in the Underworld of Orpheus Black, by Marcus Sedgwick and Julian Sedgewick, illustrated by Alexis Deacon (Walker Books US, August 13, 2019), is a strange, melancholy, moving fever-dream of a story.  It tells of young Henry Black, a conscientious objector battling the fires of the London blitz, who dreams of chronicling the war through his art and his journal writing (this journal constitutes the prose and pictures of the book).  His decision not to fight has created a rift between him and his father and brother, Ellis.  It's the loss of Ellis that hurts Henry most, and so he is glad that Ellis agrees to meet him at a London pub.  The two brothers don't exactly reconcile, but it is clear that their love is still alive at its roots.  And then, after Henry leaves the pub, it is bombed, as is the bus Henry was trying to take home.

When he wakes with a severe head injury in the hospital, his journal turns into a feverish record of his desperate efforts to find his brother and dig him out from the wreckage.  He is accompanied on his quest by Agatha, a German Jewish refugee child he met at the hospital, who is longing to find her parents.  Through the horrors of WW II London, the two of them travel, going ever deeper below the city.  And at last, they find what they were seeking.

Though Henry is not directly aware of it, he has a guide of sorts on his journey--Orpheus, who sees parallels between his own story and Henry's quest  to venture into the realm of death to bring back a loved one.  The reader, however, knows Orpheus is involved from the beginning; he presents his own poetic narrative alongside Henry's journal entries.  Orpheus' involvement gives a mythic gravitas to Henry's inchoate chronicle of his desperate journey through the hell of bombed London, and his prophetic words about future war, alongside strange futurist horrors dreamed of and drawn by Henry, lift this war from specific to universal terror.

It is not a fast, fun read.  You have to be in the right frame of mind, to take it as it comes and reflect and ponder without troubling too much about narrative coherence.  And I was able to do that, to an extent.  What held me back from being deeply involved was the poetry of Orpheus, which I did not care for.  I would much much much have preferred pure blank verse to the rhymes that kept popping up.  They just killed the mood for me.

I'm not quite sure who the perfect audience for the book is.  Greek mythology fans, looking for a retelling, might be disappointed; it's more an echoing than a reimagining (though small details were pleasing--Persephone, aka Kore, becomes a woman named Cora, for instance).  Some young readers might not have the patience to accept the strange.  But those young readers who do, in particular those drawn to thought-provoking meditations on history, will be rewarded.

dislaimer: review copy received from the publisher


  1. Hmmmm. This sounds interesting. Thanks for telling me about it. Maybe I will check it out.

  2. I'm not sure this one is for me. Certainly not at the moment. Rise of the Dragon Moon, however, sounds quite fun. (I still have to read Dragonfell, and Girl With the Dragon Heart. Maybe I should have a dragon week!)


Free Blog Counter

Button styles