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Emilie and the Hollow World  (Emilie, book 1)

By Martha Wells 

30 Mar, 2021

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2013’s Emilie and the Hollow World is the first of two books (thus far) in Martha Wells’ Emilie series (a secondary-world gas-lamp fantasy). 

Determined to escape her uncle’s heavy-handed guardianship, sixteen-year-old Emilie sneaks out of his house, planning to take refuge in prestigious Shipands Academy in another city … somehow; many details of her plan are as yet vague. Her simple plan hits an almost immediate snag: she cannot afford the necessary ferry ticket. She stows away on a ferry, but is discovered in short order. She flees in haste, jumps into the harbour, and boards a nearby ship. Bad move, Emilie.


Top sorcerers believe there is a world hidden within the familiar world that surface dwellers know. The brilliant Dr. Marlende devised a way to reach it: he followed aetheric currents down through the extinct volcano Mount Tovera. Once within the Hollow World, Marlende’s cunning device broke down. There was no way for the expedition as a whole to return, but he was able to send two people to get help. 

The only survivor of the pair is a Hollow Worlder named Kenar. He contacts Lord Engal, who was one of Dr. Marlende’s rivals in a competition to reach the Hollow World. Engal agrees to help. A ship is outfitted and sets out for Mount Tovera. On Engal’s ship: stowaway Emilie. 

She is discovered (she seems to be bad at the stowaway biz). Engal declines to throw her overboard: this isn’t the sort of contrived story where success or failure rides on the extra weight of a stowaway, and in any case Engal is not the sort to be compelled by cold equations to commit murder. Emilie becomes part of the second expedition to the Hollow World.

The aetheric engine protecting the vessel functions just long enough for the ship to reach the Hollow World, then breaks down. If all are to return home, repairs are necessary, repairs best done by Marlende. If he can be found … 

It has taken quite some time for Kenar to reach Engal, for Engal to mount a rescue, and for the rescue ship to enter the Hollow World. In the meantime, Marlende has become thoroughly entangled in Hollow World politics. As a consequence, both expeditions find themselves prisoners of a Hollow World queen. Emilie, the young stowaway, holds the key to escape. 

~oOo~

Emilie is yet another modern take on Victorian womanhood, a heroine whose utterly reasonable ambitions are constrained by narrow gender roles (which modern readers will doubtless condemn and abhor). Well, there’s perhaps some justification for her aunt and uncle: Emilie’s mother had a successful but scandalous acting career. She eventually married, but that did not erase her sins in the eyes of her conventional kin. The aunt and uncle fear that Emilie might follow her mother’s example. Which would reflect badly on them [1].

Not exactly the carers that one would want for one’s orphan child. Indeed, Emilie is the second child to have run away from them, 

It’s interesting that so many secondary worlds with entirely different natural laws manage to recapitulate social arrangements peculiar to a specific time and place on our world. I would surmise that this is because it’s easy for authors to build fantasy worlds that backpack on real-world history; it’s easier than worldbuilding from scratch. 

But … if you’re going to imagine a world with different natural laws (laws allowing magic, aetheric engines, and planets with hollow interiors) and then plop humans into it (humans as evolved in our world, with our natural laws), you’ve already taken liberties with scientific verisimilitude. So why not go all the way? Have fun with quasi-Victorian adventure tropes! 

In some ways the Hollow World reminded me of the world of Well’s Raksura books. There are many different species of tool-users who have adapted to different environments. The Hollow Worlder who reaches Engal and arranges a rescue, Kenar, is not all human. He has fur and scales. The queen who imprisons the expeditions rules over a kingdom of merfolk. 

This book is aimed at a younger audience; the prose is straightforward and the vocabulary unchallenging [2].

Emilie and the Hollow World isn’t all that original. Instead, the author is engaging in creative variations on story elements that have been with us for a century or more. It is an amusing page-turner that I’d recommend to the teens for whom it is intended, except…

Emilie and the Hollow World is out of print. 

1: A book written from the aunt and uncle’s perspective might be a different story. 

2: It was a bit surprising that the author would use whore” in inner monologue (Emilie’s mom was an actress, which from the perspective Emilie’s aunt and uncle is apparently half a step away from being a street walker). Not the sort of word one expects in a YA book. But there’s precedent: the indubitably YA Starman Jones (Heinlein) contained an off-handed reference to johns being rolled by prostitutes back in the 1950s. There’s no reason to suppose that modern teens would be shocked when 1950s teens weren’t.