Martha Wells’ Emilie and the Hollow World is so entertaining, so compelling, SO MUCH FUN that it made me do something that I haven’t done since the fourth grade: When my lunch break was over, I just kept on reading by super-stealthily hiding my book under the desk. Which would have been less obvious if I’d been sitting in my office rather than the library’s circulation desk. Happily, judging by all of the smirks I caught, my patrons apparently approve of the appearance of my (usually Inner) Bad Librarian.
And as this is totally a book that will appeal to my Library Director, here’s hoping that she’ll also appreciate the actions of my Evil, Semi-Unprofessional Twin, just this once.
After years of verbal and emotional abuse, 16-year-old Emilie runs away from her Uncle Yeric’s household and heads across the city to buy passage on a boat headed to...well, it’s a long story. One thing leads to another, and she becomes an accidental stowaway on a MAGICAL SUBMARINE headed another world LOCATED BENEATH THE EARTH’S SURFACE. There are shipwrecks and sunken cities, steampunk-ish contraptions and gentlemen magician-scientists, other species and other cultures, and lots and lots of brushes with death. It’s reminiscent of an old fashioned adventure yarn with shades of Jules Verne, and with a couple of very minor caveats*, I loved every second of it.
Things I loved (in addition to the obvious):
Emilie herself: She’s immediately likable, always willing to admit her mistakes but not prone to self-flagellation or self-loathing; she’s a big fan of adventure stories a la H. Rider Haggard, and sometimes bases her decisions on what she’s learned from them; she brilliantly (and hilariously) uses the rules of etiquette to diffuse that whole stowaway situation; and while she’s extremely plucky, she’s not a swaggering heroine who’s blasé about violence and blood and death: Those things affect her emotionally but, in the moment, she soldiers on through and waits for an appropriate time to grieve. Best of the best, from the very beginning, she judges others by their actions, not by their species, and along those same lines, she recognizes beauty in the residents of the Hollow Earth, but not in a way that exoticizes them.
Miss Marlende, who’s not an entirely three dimensional character, but is so cool that I didn’t care:
...Miss Marlende was an adventuress; not the romantic kind who got into trouble, but the intrepid kind who explored unknown territories and made discoveries and visited all sorts of strange places.
The worldbuilding: There are no infodumps about the magic system whatsoever, in that the dialogue between characters always assumes a basic familiarity with their world. That sounds like an obvious trait in a fantasy novel, I know, but it’s far more rare than you’d think. Similarly, Wells doesn’t get carried away and bog the story down with pages and pages of overly-detailed description of the Hollow World: Instead, she uses just enough imagery to let the reader’s own imagination create vivid Technicolor landscapes.
Possibilities for crossover appeal to the middle grade audience: It’s always great to find new titles for young patrons who read “up,” and except for Emilie’s reason for running away—her uncle thinks she’s fated to become a prostitute because her mother was an actress—she could easily be a resourceful 12-year-old, rather than her stated age of 16. Also, get this: Emilie doesn’t have a romantic interest. By the end of the story, yes, there’s the possibility of a burgeoning romance, but it isn’t a major thread at all.
I’ll be going back and reading some of Wells’ adult books, POST-HASTE.
*My only real complaint is that, more often than not, the third-person narrator tells us how the characters are feeling, rather than showing us. It’s more noticeable towards the beginning of the book—once the characters enter the Hollow Earth, the sense of adventure and wonder supersedes everything else—but it’s never so overt that it becomes offensive. Also, it could be argued that the personalities of some of the characters—especially the villain—are merely sketched in, but I gave Wells a pass in that department, because A) that’s in keeping with the genre and B) the book isn’t meant to be a character study.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while re-watching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.