You don’t see enough hollow world fiction these days. There is probably a reason for that. Fortunately there are no mole people to be seen here, although there are some merpeople. Emilie and the Hollow World mixes up a couple of genres and devices to create a satisfying adventure story with a likeable protagonist. My chief criticism is simply that Martha Wells doesn’t take it far enough. This is a “safe” book.
Emilie is supposed to stow away on the steamer Merry Bell. At least, that’s the plan: stow away to Silk Harbor and flee her evil aunt and uncle to make her own way in the world. Instead she ends up stowing away aboard Sovereign, a private ship outfitted for an expedition she didn’t even conceive of existing before the steamer starts descending towards the ocean floor. Soon she finds herself an ad hoc member of a search and exploration expedition inside the Earth itself.
From the start I was concerned by Emilie as a protagonist, because she lacks the training necessary to be of much use in the situations she finds herself. After she finds her way into the Sovereign’s party, people spend a lot of time explaining things to her. This is ideal for exposition, of course, but it makes Emilie somewhat dull compared to the secondary characters. She is so young, and she has no personal stake in what’s happening.
Wells is clearly aware of these dangers and seeks to mitigate them, however. Emilie is clever and, more importantly, forthright and ready to take risks. Over the course of the story she proves instrumental in acting quickly and honestly in the best interests of her newfound friends. She is far from a Mary Sue, too: she’s not suddenly an amazing navigator or awesome sailor or able to wield a sword or gun. This makes Emilie very relatable, and while she is as much of a product of this pseudo-Edwardian society as any other character, she is less of a fully-formed person. Her youth and inexperience makes her more impressionable and flexible and matches the open-mindedness of the reader. This pairing does much to ameliorate Emilie’s otherwise vague role in the narrative, and she does serve an important purpose in much of the story.
The other chief deficiency of this book might simply be the lack of a good villain. This is a story screaming for a villain, and the banal Lord Ivers doesn’t cut it. There are a few layers of conflict to this book, from the Sovereign’s search for Dr. Marlende to the question of whether they can ever return to the surface at all. Yet when we finally meet Lord Ivers, he’s a bit of a letdown. The whole secondary climax with a mole on Soverign and sabotage, etc., should have worked better than it did, and Wells did her best to foreshadow the identity of the mole without spoiling it. Unfortunately, there is a slapstick quality to the relationships between Engal, Marlende, and Ivers that undermines the significance of the threats happening here.
Finally, I’m somewhat disappointed with the ambience of the hollow world itself. There is so much latent potential here. We learn early on that there are many different species here, from the Cirathi to the merpeople to others we don’t even glimpse. There are hints of monsters who lurk in the sub-ocean. There should be so many wonders to behold and dangers to dodge, but ultimately what we get is a fairly pathetic little war and some escape/chase sequences. Don’t get me wrong: what Wells delivers here is good quality action. Yet she just barely scrapes the surface of what’s possibly present in her hollow world, and it’s frustrating. There could have been so much more adventure here. I don’t want to tell an author how to write her book. I just love the idea of the hollow world so much that I’m sad we don’t see more of it.
If you’ve read this far (you crazy review reader you), you might have developed the impression I didn’t like this book, because all I’m really doing is harping on its flaws. There’s a reason for that, but it’s not a dislike of Emilie and the Hollow World. This is a fun novel, a relaxing but entertaining read. But there isn’t much that’s remarkable about it. If that sounds strange, given the dearth of hollow world stories these days, then it is. I can be very hard on books that try and fail, but I am even harder on books that don’t try at all just to succeed. Emilie and the Hollow World is a fine choice, and I won’t discourage you from reading it. But there are just so many other books that take more risks and present wider vistas and gutsier conflicts. I enjoyed this one, but it didn’t excite me.