For many authors, it can be difficult to trace the origins of a long-germinating story. But Lance Lee, author of Orpheus Rising, clearly recalls the imagistic beginnings of his debut children’s book. “The initial ideas that came to me involved a young hero,” he says, “and some objects hanging in his room: a sea serpent with a too-large head, a schooner, and an elephant dancing on a flying trapeze in Edwardian elegance.”
They inspired him to put together what the BookLife Prize Critic’s Report calls “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.”
But this took decades to write. For years, Lee—who has a background as a poet and a playwright—placed drafts of the book back in the proverbial drawer. Eventually, those potent first images came into greater focus. “They proved predictive,” Lee says, “leading me into a world where their presence makes sense. In that world, an Orpheus story pattern came readily to mind, dealing with a hero poet who loses his love, and sings his way persuasively before Hades in Hell, whom he persuades to release her, although in the myth Orpheus ultimately fails.”
But Lee envisioned a different outcome and created a dual-hero story about a despairing father and a young restive son daring enough to risk everything against all the odds to rescue his mother from the afterlife. “That turns Orpheus Rising,” he says, “into a story of a man regaining his ability to love as well as a son regaining his ardently desired, long-lost mother—and makes possible the happy resolution!” Attaining that meant dealing too with moments of grief, loss, and redemption in a way readers will find moving and revealing—something that posed a real challenge in a children's fantasy novel.
Getting that right required striking a unique tonal balance. Intuitively, Lee felt that it “needed to be written with a light touch, even at the most serious moments.” Several major prepublication reviews praised the book. The BookLife Prize Critic’s Report says Lee's language "is wonderfully rich, and sentences flow with an uncommon grace"; Kirkus says Lee "writes a wildly imaginative, entertaining adventure story that can stand with the classics of children’s literature”; and Clarion Foreword Review hails Lee as an author who "handles a serious topic with narrative grace."
The lighter elements of the story include a blank, magic book that represents what Lee calls “the unpredictable nature of the imagination.” It’s through this book that Sam brings the work’s fantastical beings to life—the elephant spirit guide, Lepanto; the schooner they ride upon; a telepathic sea monster; and the various adventures in the Far Land of Fear and Dread City from where they rescue Sam's mother.
All of this adds up to a book that Midwest Book Review calls “a standout from the crowd, even if its exuberant story defies simple categorization. This translates to an expansive audience who will appreciate its charm.”
Orpheus Rising is a book that can be seen through different lenses, both as a story about reclaiming love after loss and as a story younger readers will also enjoy as an epic adventure full of imagination and magic. Lee personally views the book in this way: “It’s really a parable of what a family needs to endure successfully. Orpheus Rising is about how a father and a son discover that—which opens the door to the story's happy ending.”
Lee also felt his characters deserved visual representation. But finding the right artist to capture the delicate blend of fantasy and realism was a challenge. In the end, it was serendipitous. “I saw an exhibit of work by Ellen Raquel LeBow that was just stunning in its black-and-white imagery and technique,” Lee says. “I reached out to her through a mutual friend, with the result you now see in her brilliant images for Orpheus Rising.”