I planned to make the Books of the Raksura my first Martha Wells books because so many people have raved about them. But, as these things go, Strange Chemistry (Angry Robot’s YA imprint) offered e-ARCs of Wells’ young adult novel on NetGalley and I couldn’t resist.
Published by: Strange Chemistry, April 2013
ebook: 320 pages
Series: Emilie #1
My rating: 4,5/10
First sentence: Creeping along the docks in the dark, looking for the steamship Merry Bell, Emilie was starting to wonder if it might be better to just walk to Silk Harbor.
While running away from home for reasons that are eminently defensible, Emilie’s plans to stow away on the steamship Merry Bell and reach her cousin in the big city go awry, landing her on the wrong ship and at the beginning of a fantastic adventure.
Taken under the protection of Lady Marlende, Emilie learns that the crew hopes to use the aether currents and an experimental engine, and with the assistance of Lord Engal, journey to the interior of the planet in search of Marlende’s missing father.
With the ship damaged on arrival, they attempt to traverse the strange lands on their quest. But when evidence points to sabotage and they encounter the treacherous Lord Ivers, along with the strange race of the sea-lands, Emilie has to make some challenging decisions and take daring action if they are ever to reach the surface world again.
It is rare that I can’t make up my mind whether I liked or disliked a book. I suppose one emotion always outweighs the other and if you pinned me down I’d have to go with “rather disliked it”. Emilie and the Hollow World is a nod toward the wonderful Jules Verne adventures, discovering new worlds hidden within our own, meeting strange peoples and making new friends. The idea is wonderful and adding magic to it seems like a nice bonus. But there were many little things wrong with this book that add up to a rather unengaging reading experience.
It starts with a minor qualm – the protagonist’s age. Emilie is supposed to be 16 but from the get go, I though of her much more as a 12-year-old, maximum. She acts and speaks like a much younger person and if her age hadn’t been mentioned, I would have happily continued imagining a little girl. But the fact that we are told how old she is, bothered me. Emilie runs away from home, intending to buy passage on a ship. Instead, she realises she’s spent too much of her money on food, has to run away from people who suspect her of being a thief, and ends up as a stowaway on the Sovereign.
Of course, that much fancier ship has its own crew but just when they disocver Emilie, chaos ensues. I assumed the issues of her being a runaway and hiding on their ship would be talked about when the characters were out of immediate danger. But no, people just seem to take things the way they come without asking questions. The author seems to expect a bit too much suspension of desbelief here and while I am willing to believe pretty much anything for the sake of a good story, it needs to work within that story. This tale is set in a world that seems to believe in reason and science and rules. So it should strike somebody as odd that a young girl has run away from home, and even though Emilie explains her reasons, there were still two points that annoyed me. First of all, her reasons sound very good but unfortunately we are told them, never shown them. If the book had opened with Emilie suffering from her uncle and aunt’s treatment, her entire character would have been much stronger. Secondly, even if I accept that the ship’s crew feels empathy for Emilie and there’s not much to be done about her (now that she’s on the ship) it strikes me as very unlikely they would involve her so quickly and deeply into their venture and lay open all their plans. If anything, it would have been believable for her to become a kitchen maid on the ship to pay her passage and cleverly overhear these plans.
Once they arrive in the Hollow World – via aetheric engine (read: magic) – a lot of stuff happens but nothing of real consequence. Of course, there are things afoot that will have consequences for the people of the hollow world, but since they aren’t the main characters of this story, there was not much for me to engage with. At that point, the focus of the story shifts from Emlie to the politics of the Hollow World – since we don’t get enough time with any of the parties involved, I had a lot of trouble working up enough interest to keep reading. This not very thick novel took me a good two months to finish. It just lacked drive, after the initial action-packed moments with Emilie running away from home.
The characters, including Emilie, were flat and underdeveloped. There would have been so much potential for this young girl to realise she can take things into her own hands, that she doesn’t have to depend on other people. But Emilie comes out of this story pretty much the way she entered. The only exception to this was Kenar, the most interesting character in the entire book. Unfortunately, we get see very little of him in the second half, which made it even more tedious to read. Another problem I had with the characters was that there was no real bonding between them, despite being through quite a lot of adventures together. If the protagonist doesn’t seem to truly care about her companions, why should I? Again, we were told that they were sad to say goodbye, but we’re not shown why.
The bottom line for me is: Reading this book felt more like a job, something I had to do, instead of a story I couldn’t wait to get back to. Whenever I put it aside after half a chapter, it took a lot of willpower to pick it up again. A novel, especially a novel aimed at children, should at least get the entertainment factor right.
THE GOOD: A good premise and a nice tip of the hat to Jules Verne.
THE BAD: Emilie came over much too young, despite non-stop action, there is very little development or emotionally engaging moments.
THE VERDICT: It’s a gamble. Maybe if I were 10 years old I would have liked this book more. This way, it was neither horrible nor good. The few elements I enjoyed didn’t get enough screen time and most of the time, I didn’t care enough to pick the book up and continue reading. And I certainly won’t be back for more of this series. Wells’ other books though… probably.
RATING: 4,5/10 – Bad but not terrible