Opening: “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. So far, her great escape from Uncle Yeric’s tyranny hadn’t been great, or much of an escape. It’s going to be embarrassing if I don’t get further than this, she thought, exasperated at herself.”
When I heard about Martha Wells’ Emilie and the Hollow World, I was really excited. Wells is a favorite author of mine, with lots of great historical fantasy books to her credit. Emilie is her first foray into the YA world, and part of a series from Strange Chemistry. I find the Strange Chemistry model fascinating and their packaging awesome. So far, they haven’t had any books that completely wowed me, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed several. Martha Wells was a huge draw for me, plus the gorgeous cover: maps, airships, Victorianesque portraits. In fact, I was so excited that I immediately went and pre-ordered the book.
Sooooo. My reaction with this one is a little hard to parse out. In its way, it’s a perfectly fine pseudo-historical fantasy–a little more blatently steampunkish than anything else I’ve read from Wells which is an interesting tack to take. It has a feisty main character in Emilie, and plenty of adventures, with a whole world to explore. In short, there are a lot of the ingredients of a book I would really, really enjoy. And yet I found myself mostly frustrated.
There are a couple of facets to this. First, I had was reading or re-reading two of Wells’ adult books (Elements of Fire and Wheel of the Infinite) at the same time as I was reading Emilie and it suffered in comparison. Whereas there I saw a wonderful sense of inhabiting the characters, not only their actions but their emotions, their past, their way of looking at the world, in Emilie I felt that more often than not we were told how people felt, how they reacted, rather than experience it. So the reading experience was oddly distanced–I didn’t have stakes in the characters and their continued happiness/survival.
Second, again in comparison to Wells’ adult books, Emilie has a quite different way of negotiating the world. The characters in her other books are frequently unhappy or rebelling against their world and society, but at the same time they remain part of it. They’re struggling from within, usually with a strong sense of duty and–if not selflessness, unselfishness. They’re committed to something outside of their personal desires. If Emilie were, in a sense, the journey of someone younger becoming that, I think it would be pretty amazing. But what we get instead is a jump from a girl running away from family to a girl involved in a wider community. We are, in my opinion, missing the vital links that connect the inward journey to the outer. In fact, Emilie is literally outside of her world for most of the book. This difference is perhaps involved in the younger audience–that teens are still trying to find their way in the world, negotiate who or what they ought to respect and give loyalty to. But it also strikes me as a somewhat simplistic view of teenagers. All teens will not rebel in the way Emilie does, all teens are not explicitly separating themselves from their families.
Which brings me to the question of complexity. Overall, this book is simplistic rather than complex. From the characters to the writing, I felt that the depth of feeling and thought that characterizes much of Wells’ writing was absent here. Even the worldbuilding is essentially a blank–we know almost nothing about Emilie’s world aside from a few place names and a general sense of a changing society. There’s more about the Hollow World and its people and customs, but even there I found some of the Cirathi’s body language to be suspiciously human-like. There were no real moments of dislocation when Emilie realizes that the people she has genuinely come to like and admire are really not like her at all. And I couldn’t help wondering about the science of Emilie’s worlds–I know this is fantasy and so I’m trying to just leave it at that, but how does all of this work?
So, based on everything I’ve just mentioned, it seems to me that this is really not a YA novel. It’s much closer to middle-school level, in my opinion, and probably should have been marketed as such. YA these days practically demands complexity and that’s exactly what’s not here. Middle grade is still comfortable with black and white, with backstories that aren’t filled in. I’m not trying to make a value judgement of either, but rather to say that the needs of readers in those two areas are quite different and that Emilie really falls into the latter rather than the former. Now, I had read a review or two of Emilie before I read the book, so I already had some sense that this might be true. In that way, I was much less disappointed than some readers because I expected what I got. But I think it’s a bit of a shame that this wasn’t marketed as middle-grade; I think it’s ripe for some book talking there. For YA readers, I would suggest jumping straight into Wells’ adult fantasy, which has the kind of tension and high stakes that teens would enjoy.
In the end, I’ve written almost 1000 words about this book and I’m still not quite sure what I’m trying to say. Is it a bad book? Not exactly, though I think there were certain aspects which could have been better handled. It’s a pity that this one didn’t live up to my (admittedly high) expectations for it, but I’m certainly not blacklisting either Martha Wells or Strange Chemistry because of it. In fact, I continue to have a lot of respect for both, and I’ll probably even be back for the sequel (out next year).
Book source: purchased
Book information: Strange Chemistry, 2013; upper middle grade/younger YA