Brought to you by OBS reviewer Marie-Reine
*Beware of possible Spoilers*
After running away from her aunt and uncle’s constant disapproval, Emilie attempts to stow away on a steamer, the Merry Bell, to make her way to her cousin’s school. Mistaken for a robber, she hides aboard another ship, the Sovereign, a ship powered by magic and headed for the Hollow World, a mystical place inside the Earth, full of unexplored civilizations and creatures. Under the protection of Lady Marlende, she joins Lord Engal and Kenar, a Cirathi and native of the Hollow World, in their attempt to rescue Lady Marlende’s father and Kenar’s fellow countrymen. Sabotage, a treacherous competitor, and the unknown flora and fauna of the new world they discover arise to challenge their navigations. In her attempts to help her new friends, the eponymous heroine faces these perils with daring courage and determination.
Martha Wells, the author, ably mixes steam punk and fantasy. Wells sets this fantasy tale in a Victorian-like world of steam and steel. Scientist magicians and gentlemen philosophers compete to publicize their inventions—a new engine to navigate the aether between worlds—and the discoveries made in the Hollow World. Since the protagonist, Emilie, is as new to the technology as the reader is, Wells has the freedom to explain it without overburdening the narrative. Thankfully, Wells also avoids the ethnocentric tendencies in adventure narratives to depict the other species encountered as wholly villainous or worst, as primitive, innocent and wise. Neither the Cirathi nor the merepeople are naively awed by the explorers nor do they allow themselves to be instructed by them.
Though set in a puritanical and patriarchal society (on the surface, at least), the female characters are strong and independent. Lady Marlende commissions the help of Lord Engal for her father’s rescue almost by herself and she is described as being quite an adventuress already. Rani, the Cirathi woman, is the captain of her ship and has the uncommon strength of her race as well as an uncompromising intelligence. Emilie at all of sixteen has run away from the security of her family where she suffered much oppression from the males in her life. Despite this, she does not use it as an excuse to be weak and though she may feel fear, she never hesitates when danger arises. Of all the female characters, she has the most potential to act helpless since she is neither a seasoned adventuress nor is she gifted with great physical strength. But Wells writes her as a courageous young woman, resilient under pressure and devoted to those who show her kindness.
A well-written and imaginative adventure story, Wells avoids certain pitfalls of the genre and creates an entirely enjoyable narrative. Readers will enjoy the beautiful descriptions of the new world explored as well as the strength of the lead female characters.