Emilie and the Hollow World is Martha Wells’ thirteenth and latest novel, hot off the presses from Angry Robot/Strange Chemistry. It’s also Wells’ first novel marketed to the YA demographic, and speaking personally, I was interested to see how Wells would approach a different audience.
She doesn’t disappoint.
Emilie, the sixteen-year-old eponymous hero, has run away from home after an argument with her guardians. Her reasons are defensible; her forward planning skills, less so. When her plan to stow away on the steamship Merry Bell to reach her cousin goes awry (a small case of mistaken identity—mistaken for a thief), she finds herself on the wrong ship. The Sovereign has fought off attackers just in time to set out on its own journey, one which will take it out of the world Emilie knows… perhaps forever.
Lord Engels turned to Emilie and demanded loudly, “Why shouldn’t I throw you overboard?”
Emilie folded her arms, skeptical. After all the shouting and turmoil at home, being threatened with a dire fate wasn’t as shocking as it ought to have been. She said, coolly, “I suppose you should throw me overboard, if you don’t mind being a murderer. I prefer being shot to being drowned, if I’m given a choice.”
Silence fell as Lord Engels was rendered momentarily speechless.
Miss Marlende and her friend Kenar have enlisted the aid of Lord Engels, nobleman and scientist, to rescue Miss Marlende’s father, Professor Marlende. The professor took an airship down the mouth of a volcano, riding the aetheric currents to the world within the world—the Hollow World, whence Kenar has come, bearing word that the professor is stranded. Lord Engels’ steamship intends to perform the same feat by a different route—and not only retrieve Professor Marlende, but thwart Lord Ivers, scientific rival to Marlende and Engels, whose rivalry has turned violent.
Emilie, in her own words, “a nosy foolish stowaway,” is caught up in their quest. Kenar may be a native of the Hollow World, but the waters they’ve arrived are as strange to him as they are to the upper-worlders. Flooded cities, carnivorous seaweed, and the politics of merpeople lie between them and Professor Merlende. Not to mention further run-ins with Lord Ivers, kidnappings, daring escapes and a spot of fighting. Oh, and the Sovereign can’t get home on its own anymore: the experimental engine that let it ride the aetheric currents down into the Hollow World is broken, and without Professor Merlende’s expertise, it may not be possible to fix it….
In Emilie and the Hollow World, Wells has written the very model of a Boys’ Adventure Story, one influenced by the Vernian tradition—with a nod to Journey to the Centre of the Earth in the shape of the volcano—but with a Girl in the adventuring role. This, on its own, isn’t revolutionary, but Wells peoples Emilie’s world with other interesting women: Miss Marlende, determined to bring her father and his research home; Rani, Kenar’s partner, who’s instrumental in helping Emilie escape from durance vile and stage a daring rescue of other prisoners; the queen of the merpeople and her attendants, whose intrigue draws the crew of the Sovereign into the middle of a war. And Emilie is the perfect Adventure hero: swept up by events, she’s determined to make the most of them. As a YA novel, it’s conspicuously lacking in angst and romantic triangles, and I love it all the better for it.
The youthful demographic that reads Rick Riordan and Tamora Pierce is the demographic this book was made for. But it was also made for me—because while Emilie and the Hollow World isn’t as complex and nuanced as Wells’ previous novels, it still bears the imprint of her skill with characterisation and occasionally delightful turns of phrase.
Read it. Give it to your local twelve-year-olds. It’s made of win.