Emilie & the Hollow World by Martha Wells, Strange Chemistry, 287 pages, £8.99 (B-format paperback), 2013
Literature is full of resourceful heroines, and Martha Wells’ Young Adult fantasy tale adds another name of such a one in the shape of Emilie (we don’t get to know her second name), a sixteen year-old girl who has managed to run away from her tyrannical uncle and aunt. It’s plain that Emilie exists in a world where womanhood is defined by feminine and domestic accomplishments, often ordained by the males. It’s implied that Emilie longs to see the outside world she’s read about in popular (and somewhat exaggerated) novels, to learn practical skills other than embroidery and homecraft, leading her to decide that she needs to be with her cousin, who helps out at the Karthea school, where such skills are taught. She intends to stow away on a boat at the docks, but there’s only one problem with the execution of the plan: due to bad luck intervening, she’s ended up not on the boat which would take her to Silk Harbor where said cousin resides, but on another vessel entirely. However, this particular ship isn’t headed to another port further up the coast, but somewhere entirely different: the world that exists at the very centre of the earth.
That, indeed, is the basic premise of the novel: the ship that Emilie stows aboard is a marvellous ship of uncanny design called the Sovereign, and this is where her adventures in the inner world begin. The ship is a mixture of science and magic, a gleaming steampunk contraption powered by spells and aetheric currents abundant in the sea and air. Miss Marlende, whose father created the technology, is also aboard this wondrous conveyance, in the hopes of repatriating Marlende pater to the surface after his expedition to the Hollow World had got into difficulties and failed to return. Other expedition members include the wealthy Lord Engal, a gruff, blustery gentleman who appears to be the leader of the rescue mission, his assistant the distrustful (and somewhat murky) Dr. Barshion, and the reptilian humanoid Kenar, a Cirathi native of the inner earth. As in all good stories of this nature, there’s a dastardly antagonist who appears later on in the mix too: Lord Ivers, another wealthy aristocrat intent on using the science of aetherism to enrich himself but at Engal’s expense.
Perhaps it was just me, but it reminded me a tiny bit of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland here, and not just because Emilie falls down a hole in the ground (or a fissure at the bottom of the sea, in this case) or that she finds herself in a strange place quite unlike anything she’s known at the bottom of said hole. Like Alice, she’s practical, clever, and intelligent, plus she’s not averse to standing up for herself against adults and, although the Hollow World is a wholly unfamiliar place, she adapts to her predicament quickly. Additionally, she is anything but a shrinking violet: she is plucky enough to swing an axe at an invading sea creature early on in the book as well as effecting an escape from confinement by Lord Ivers, and in the process saving Kenar’s companion Rani.
This is a fabulously fulsome adventure, the pace cracking along breathlessly, the turns and heart-stopping moments piling on themselves while simultaneously revealing a world unlike, yet eerily similar to, our own. Double-crossing and deception are not confined to homo sapiens alone, it seems; neither are murky motives hidden behind offers of help. Emilie herself is an infinitely likeable character: sharp, able to think quickly on her feet and willing to take the odd risk here and there. Wells has erred on the right side in regards to her traits, however – she’s a very believable and very human girl, not some kind of invincible superheroine who escapes any kind of consequences. Miss Marlende is also likeable too – indeed she’s something of a cynical grown-up version of the main protagonist, but better armed and with more money. Lord Engal remains something of an unknown quantity right until just before the end and Lord Ivers is just the epitome of a complete cad, and an overbearingly arrogant one at that.
Apart from Emilie, the most detailed characters are those of Kenar and Rani, the Cirathi. Despite their alien nature, their human attributes are endearing: they care deeply for each other, they display their concern for their fellows openly and yet they are fearless when the need calls for it. These traits are in direct contrast to those of the merpeople, the beings whose territory encompasses the abandoned cities dotted around the seemingly endless seas of the inner earth. These beings are human in their own way too, I suppose, but tending to the less palatable aspects of the surface world dwellers. The landscape in which the drama is played out is fantastical yet utterly realistic for all that – one can imagine that such places are not outside the bounds of possibilities, and that the whole is somehow firmly rooted in the real world.
Finally, I have to note that, unlike some YA, Martha Wells’ prose refuses to adopt a condescending tone, assuming that its readership has more than a modicum of intelligence and is fully able to grasp concepts. It doesn’t quite broach adult subjects, mainly because they aren’t needed to bolster the story. Having said that, there are hints of a potential romance but we’re left to ponder that one as the book ends.
I loved this book, finding the heroine entirely believable and completely endearing. Emilie is not quite old enough to completely let go of the child within but yet not so young that she hasn’t developed a slightly cynical edge. In many respects she’s tantamount to being a great role model: assertive and self-confident but also aware of her limits. The tale itself is in the best tradition of the adventure story, reminding me somewhat of some of the material I used to read as a child – tomes by such luminaries as Jules Verne and Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle. Yes, it’s escapism, but grounded in humanity and morality. You can’t really ask for more than that from a book.
(And what a stunning cover – sure to stand out in any bookshop display!)