BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Emilie, running away from a bad home situation, accidentally winds up on a research vessel headed into the depths of the Hollow Earth.
PROS: Strong female characters; interesting Hollow Earth world; imaginative worldbuilding.
CONS: Book feels much more middle grade than YA in tone and complexity
BOTTOM LINE: A good introduction to Martha Wells, especially for younger readers.
With a repressive home life with her aunt and uncle, is it any wonder that Emilie would decide to run away, seeking to reach her cousin and a berth in the school she runs? However, her attempt at running away goes wrong. No, her aunt and uncle do not hire a hedgewitch to track her down. Instead, she stows aboard the wrong ship — a research ship destined to head into the depths of the earth, to the strange and foreign Hollow World, to seek a missing scientist. An unwitting passenger she might be at first, but Emilie quickly learns that her talents will be needed if they are to ever return to the world above.
Emilie and the Hollow World is Martha Wells’ first foray into YA fiction.
The character of Emilie is the best part of the novel. We spend the novel in her head and the author takes great pains to make her a believable, sympathetic and well rounded person. Her character arc and growth are relatively straightforward, but well executed all the same. The full nature of her plight,and the reasons for her flight from her aunt and uncle, are revealed bit by bit until readers get a full picture of her background.
Emilie is hardly the only female character, either. With a matriarchal culture of mer-people and the presence of another woman aboard The Sovereign, the novel passes the Bechdel test, and gives us a suite of competent female characters who act as plot drivers on both the protagonist and antagonist side of the equation. In particular, Miss Marlende acts as a role model character for Emilie, and provides a plausible entree for Emilie into the world of The Sovereign.
The other thing I liked was the world building Wells does here. If I wanted to be flippant, the novel feels like Victorian-era Ile-Rien on the surface, with a Hollow World very much in line with her Three Worlds novels, with varying types of anthropoids living in a variety of types of civilizations. The elements of the novel go beyond mere cherry-picking of the themes of her two most extensive universes, however.
On the Surface World, alchemy and science are used in a 19th century sort of milieu, both in terms of technology and social structure. Once we get to The Hollow World, we get a matriarchal decaying Atlantean culture, an astonishing set of memorable locations, wonderful alchemical vehicles, vortices linking between the Hollow World and the Surface World, and much more.
I was most taken with The Sovereign herself, the aether-current ship/submarine that the expedition uses to get to The Hollow World. There’s a fair amount of time spent within its walls and the ship, its crew, ecosystem and social structure are brought to vivid life. If the unvoiced intent of the author is to make appealing the idea of being on this ship and going off on an adventure, then that intent is more than fulfilled.
My major criticism with the novel is the apparent grade novel of the novel regarding its tone and level of complexity. The book is explicitly a YA novel, with a YA protagonist, fair and square. However, the relative simplicity of the novel, its too-straightforwardness, and its relatively light tone place this novel at the shallow end of the YA pool. I went in hoping for something like Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker series, which, while not explicitly YA, features a relatively young protagonist. Instead, Emilie and The Hollow World feels more like Greg Van Eekhout’s The Boy and the End of the World.
Again, this is not to say that this is a bad book or that I did not enjoy Emilie’s adventure and the universe she is in. I was just hoping for something a couple of degrees more sophisticated. What this does mean is that this book is definitely a good choice for younger readers, especially female ones, who a geeky parent is looking to introduce the wonders of genre reading.