Review: Emilie and the Hollow World by Martha Wells


March 25, 2013 by Heidi

Emilie and the Hollow World by Martha WellsTitle: Emilie and the Hollow World [Amazon|Goodreads]
Author: Martha Wells [Website|Twitter|Facebook]
Standing: Stand alone–Yay!
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
Published: April 2nd, 2013 by Strange Chemistry
Format: Paperback; 287 pages.
Source: ARC from publisher via NetGalley.

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.

I broke my own personal rule with Emilie and the Hollow World.  I swore up and down to myself that I was going to pick up her Books of the Raksura, but then Emilie appeared, dangling a stand alone fantasy in front of my eyes, (Do you people realize how rare those are?!  It’s like finding an elusive unicorn.) and I had to go for it first.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure my gamble really paid off.  What I found was a delightful adventure, quite a fun example of Gaslamp fantasy, but also a heroine who acted as a passive observer rather than an active participant in her own story for far too long, and writing tactics that have me throwing up all of my ‘DON’T WRITE DOWN TO YOUR AUDIENCE’ caution signs.

I’ll admit a certain amount of confusion when I began Emilie and the Hollow World.  Partially due to my own assumptions, but partially due to the writing, I was under the impression that this was Middle Grade rather than YA.  After having completed the book, I stick by my original impression and say Emilie and the Hollow World reads more like a Middle Grade than a Young Adult book.  There’s nothing wrong with that, we all know I’m big on MG, but I fear many readers will be lost due to misplaced marketing.  Yes, Emilie, the main character is 16, but honestly she came across as no older than 14 to me.  Her age could easily be lowered and fit more appropriately with the writing.

Why did this read more like a Middle Grade?  Because, unfortunately, I feel that Martha Wells wrote down to her audience.  Now, I’m not saying authors should write down to a Middle Grade audience either (just look at my beloved Cat Valente for a remarkable example of putting faith in your young readers), but when you don’t trust your audience to make connections you’re putting them in a box.  I saw regular examples of Emilie making connections for the reader–when he said B, Emilie remembered when he said A, and so Emilie understood that something was afoot–type thing.  Now, this wasn’t an incredibly egregious offender (you know the type I can’t stand–the ones who like to beat children over the head with a MESSAGE), but it was hard for me to really fall into the plot as a result.  I don’t know how much of this is just Martha Wells’ writing style, and how much was changing for the audience she was writing for.  Still, I cannot emphasize it enough–you don’t need to change much when writing for different age groups!  Yes, some content, complexity, and vocabulary can be shifted, but kids are smart, they get things, and when you forget this you’re not really writing for them.

My other big issue with Emilie and the Hollow World was that for at least the first half of the book, it was really just The Hollow World.  Emilie was just this window through which we were seeing this adventure take place, but she wasn’t really a part of it herself.  She followed people around, she said some things, but the story would have essentially remained unchanged had she not been there.

BUT (yes, there is a but), Emilie did grow.  She got some real backbone, did some things, and finally became the heroine of her story.  So let’s end this review talking about all of the really good bits of Emilie and the Hollow World, because there were just as many of them as the other type.  First off, Emilie is one of the only PoC main characters in a YA fantasy I can think of, people from her area of the world being described as having darker skin than the pale northerners.  Martha Wells uses not only diversity among the humans we know, but also introduces those beings from the Hollow World, who are incredibly different physically.  She addresses the mistakes that can be made when one assumes another is less intelligent because of how they look, and also because of their gender.  Emilie and the Hollow World is quite purposefully feminist, with not only Emilie, but the other women in the book proving their worth through cunning, action, planning, and physical feats.  Come to think of it, the entire story is filled with women saving men, but in a natural sort of ‘they’re doing it because it needs done’ way and not just to make a statement.  I appreciate that (hearken back to my not hitting readers over the head with a message–it’s certainly there, but it’s not aggressive).

Martha Wells’ Emilie and the Hollow World hits the ground running, and it’s a wonderfully paced plot that doesn’t let up till the very end.  I kept questioning her ability to get everything done in less than 300 pages, and yet, I had no need for concern.  Wells clearly recognizes what needs to be there, and what doesn’t.  There’s no fat that needs trimming here, it is neat, tidy, and a wonderful example of just how much can happen in one short story if the author gets down to business.

Emilie and the Hollow World is fun.  It is an adventurous journey akin to Jules Verne, bringing readers to a fantastical and frightening world within our own.  It is a story that believes in its characters, even if it doesn’t always trust its reader, with no moony or angsty bits to slow it down.  If you’re looking for a book with adventurers, exploits, and double dealings, Emilie of the Hollow World provides.

Likelihood that I’ll be back for more:  Despite my issues with Emilie and the Hollow World, I can certainly recognize that Martha Wells can tell a story.  This essentially had no effect on my desire to pick up Books of the Raksura, which I still intend to do.

Recommended for:  Tough one…I might give this to a reader before they’ve read other Gaslamp or Victorian fantasy like Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, or Laura Amy Schlitz’s Splendors and Glooms, or Jules Verne but alas, I wouldn’t say it’s nearly as strong.


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  1. Aww, it’s a shame this read more like MG than anything else. I’m reading The Lost Conspiracy right now and I completely understand what you mean about writing down to your audience. You can TELL when an author, like Hardinge, doesn’t do that and it makes such a huge difference. I’m glad you were still able to find some good qualities in this one, though, Heidi! :)

    P.S. – LBD is almost over! Nooo! :(

    • Heidi says:

      YES–Hardinge and Valente are the BEST about not writing down to middle graders. It also gives them a much bigger audience, because even adult readers who don’t usually read MG can enjoy them.

      RIP LBD. :(

  2. Ladies, DO TRY Wheel of the Infinite by her. It is all you’re looking for from what I gather.

    Heidi, I did a hard sell, heh, on your post at Goodreads ^^.

    • Heidi says:

      Thanks for the recommendations, Estara! I promise I WILL be reading her adult work, even though this was pretty disappointing.

  3. For some reason, I thought the title was EMILE and the Hollow World and confused myself. I think this was on Noelle’s list of Most Anticipated Books for 2013. MG isn’t really for me and Gaslamp… I don’t even know what that is! Haha. However, I did love His Dark Materials, so you never know. I do like that it features characters with darker skin. And DOUBLE YAY for it being standalone!

    • Heidi says:

      Hahaha, yeah, I suppose it being Emile would have changed a few things. 😛

      Gaslamp is basically steampunk but more fantasy/magic driven. But yeah, there’s so many better books out there, I wouldn’t pick this one up with great expectations.

  4. Charlotte says:

    I’ll probably still try this (the title and the cover were giving me a mg vib anyway) but it’s good to know that my expectations shouldn’t be sky high.

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