A doughty psychopomp

Martha Wells:
Emilie & the Hollow World
Strange Chemistry 2013

Having run away from her straitlaced relatives orphan stowaway Emilie has found that she is not on the conventional steamship she expected; instead she finds the vessel under attack, a gentleman who is part scales and part fur, and a totally unconventional voyage that takes her under the sea to unknown lands.

For this is a not your average Edwardian adventure tale of derring-do; this is a steampunk novel where Jules Verne meets Edgar Rice Burroughs or H G Wells hobnobs with Rider Haggard, and this is a world both like and yet unlike our own.

Because, as the title tells us, it is a planet where we discover a world within a world: the earth of this universe is hollow.

Martha Wells’ YA novel — slow to start but soon picking up speed — qualifies as steampunk because we are soon introduced to steamships and airships which can be powered by an alternative fuel: not fossil-fuel but Aether or, as we’d call it, magic. By setting her story in an early 20th-century milieu the author is also able to slip in notions of gender-equality which appears to be as unusual in this fictional world as it was revolutionary in our own. While Emilie’s escapade turns into something rather similar to the adventure novels she loves to read, here however the dangers are real and can and do involve the deaths of people she can put names to, a fate she comes close to more than once.

The terrain of the inner world plays host to double-dealing and double-cross, to both humanoid and amphibious individuals. It reminds me most of the novels by the creator of Tarzan who, building on pseudoscientific theories of the time, in 1914 invented the world of Pellucidar for a series of books. But, unlike with the purely adventurous scenarios of Burroughs, the presence of magic in Martha Wells’ story brings to mind mythic journeys to the underworld and folkloric tales of mortals enticed to Fairyland: after all, here be merpeople and Cithari — people who are a cross between dragons and wolves — into whose realms penetrate rival lords, a lady, sorcerers … and our doughty young heroine.

Emilie is our admirable psychopomp, our guide to this inner world, by dint of stumbling into the equivalent of Charon’s craft. No damsel in distress this — she takes the initiative, dares to disagree, undertakes perilous tasks despite her heart being in her mouth. If and when she returns to the surface will she condescend to take up a meek and subservient role again? Perhaps not: there’s also a sequel entitled Emilie and the Sky World by our prolific author.

I found this both an enjoyable and a painless read, for the most part: though vividly brought to life this subterranean world was entirely disorientating (maybe deliberately so) and I soon gave up trying to fathom directions, scale, whether the inhabitants existed on the underside of the earth’s crust or not, or the scientific principles behind an inner sun and its satellite; best to go with the flow, as the travellers do in the current that is the aether.

The year after this was published Strange Chemistry — a subsidiary of Angry Robot books — stopped issuing YA titles, a sad loss apparently for many loyal readers

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