Review: Voyages in the Underworld of Orpheus Black

Voyages in the Underworld of Orpheus Black
By Marcus Sedgwick, Julian Sedgwick, and Alexis Deacon
Published August 13, 2019 by Walker Books US

Publisher’s summary:
Harry Black is lost between the world of war and the land of myth in this illustrated novel that transports the tale of Orpheus to World War II-era London.

Brothers Marcus and Julian Sedgwick team up to pen this haunting tale of another pair of brothers, caught between life and death in World War II. Harry Black, a conscientious objector, artist, and firefighter battling the blazes of German bombing in London in 1944, wakes in the hospital to news that his soldier brother, Ellis, has been killed. In the delirium of his wounded state, Harry’s mind begins to blur the distinctions between the reality of war-torn London, the fiction of his unpublished sci-fi novel, and the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Driven by visions of Ellis still alive and a sense of poetic inevitability, Harry sets off on a search for his brother that will lead him deep into the city’s Underworld. With otherworldly paintings by Alexis Deacon depicting Harry’s surreal descent further into the depths of hell, this eerily beautiful blend of prose, verse, and illustration delves into love, loyalty, and the unbreakable bonds of brotherhood as it builds to a fierce indictment of mechanized warfare.

This lovely book is a sort of retelling of the legend of Orpheus set in London during World War II. Harry Black is a conscientious objector, and he’s doing his war service by Votagesputting out fires from the German bombs that fall on London every night. Because Harry isn’t fighting in the war, his father disowned him and his relationship with his brother Ellis is strained.

After a bombing raid, Harry is injured and hospitalized and his brother is apparently killed. In his concussed state, Harry is convinced that his brother is alive, so he escapes the hospital with a young girl named Anna in tow, and they begin a bizarre journey into the underworld of London.

The journey is weird and wonderful and moving. Orpheus himself is a character in the book commenting on the action. The story is told partly in verse. The book has beautiful and slightly creepy illustrations by Alexis Deacon, which add to the eerie feeling of the story. The fraught relationship between the brothers was very well done, and Harry’s journey is quite moving. I enjoyed never quite knowing what was going on; it’s sort of the way a head injury or a near-death experience might feel. London during the Blitz is evoked quite vividly. It’s sort of but not quite a retelling, and a passing familiarity with the myth of Orpheus may help the reader.

I received an ARC from the publisher through NetGalley.

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