While running away from home, Emilie’s plans to stow away on the steamship Merry Bell and reach her cousin in the big city go awry, landing her on the wrong ship and at the beginning of a fantastic adventure. Taken under the protection of Lady Marlende, Emilie learns that the crew hopes to journey to the interior of the planet in search of Marlende’s missing father. With the ship damaged on arrival, they attempt to traverse the strange lands on their quest. But when evidence points to sabotage and they encounter the treacherous Lord Ivers, along with the strange races of the sea-lands, Emilie has to make some challenging decisions and take daring action if they are ever to reach the surface world again.
With its Jules Verne vibe and steampunk adventure mashup, I thought that Emilie and the Hollow World was definitely a book for me. But it’s taken me an awful long time to get through what is not an overly long book. I’ve kept on reading because the central premise is actually quite interesting and fun. However, the execution I found rather difficult to swallow.
As a young adult book, there are certain compromises that have to be met for its intended audience. Whilst you should never underestimate the intelligence of your readers, Emilie and the Hollow World actively seems to talk down to them, infuriatingly simplifying things. The plot itself is basic and when it reaches any level of depth or complexity, shies away from following it though, instead hurtling off to its next destination.
At its heart of this is the character of Emilie. She is depicted as running away from an (unseen) Aunt and Uncle. Unfortunately, the heaps of exposition never really tell us anything. Emilie’s reasoning for running away is lathered on rather than shown. Likewise, her character wavers from insecure little girl to outgoing hero in a disappointingly inconsistent way that belies her age – one moment, she is clearly underage, the next she is commenting on the physical attractiveness of one of the crew! Her explanation for events is simplistic, and after a time, she actually becomes rather irritating with her insecurity.
On the plus side, the science is good; it works within its own internal logic without bogging us down in detail. The aether winds and steampunk brass engines convey enough detail to be evocative without being overbearing. The concept of the Hollow World itself also provides tropical imagery akin to the devastation wreaked in Ballard’s Drowned World.
And I like the world-building, it feels like a rounded round, and worthy of exploration. but this is undone by the lack of development. You are like a tourist, skimming over the surface. And this is not just limited to the atmosphere either sadly. The most engaging character, the warrior-like Kenar, disappears halfway through the book; the potentially promising politics of the Hollow World and the enchanting culture of its inhabitants then also fizzle out.
Unfortunately, Emilie and the Hollow World becomes a disappointing execution of an interesting premise. A complex story worthy of exploration fights with its young adult roots, resulting in a unhappy and unsatisfying experience for all concerned.
The Fiction Stroker gives Emilie and the Hollow World two strokes out of five: