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Fantasy Review: ‘Emilie and the Hollow World’ by Martha Wells

Why, oh why, can I not enjoy a book by Martha Wells?  She does so many things right.  When it comes to quality of writing she is much better than many others I enjoy.  One could never accuse her of being trite or cliché; every book is original and unique.  Yet I can’t seem to enjoy her work.  ‘Death of a Necromancer’ was interesting enough, but left me bored.  I barely was able to get through ‘The Wizard Hunters.’  Wanting to give her one more chance I was happy to see her trying out a YA book; maybe this time I would feel the magic.

‘Emilie and the Hollow World’ is a quick little read about a young girl who stows away on a journey to the center of the world.  Found too late to be put back ashore she is put under the eye of Lady Marlende, who has put together the trip to rescue her father.  Pursued by her father’s rival looking to steal the glory, the crew meet a few fantastic creatures and are dragged into a possible war.  Adventure awaits!

Once again Wells does so many things right.  Emilie is a runaway, but not from a cliché ridden horrible backstory.  Her home life is… disappointing, not full of starvation and abuse.  Lady Marlende is a strong, capable women doing fairly well in a patriarchal society.  The crew is a varied group.  Emilie seems smart enough, though at times she wavers between clueless and the smartest one around. She is also the very opposite of a Mary Sue.  Sometimes she is helpful, but she doesn’t discover any super powers or a long lost destiny.  For the most part she is just along for the ride.

And right there is where I think I started having issues with this book.  With maybe one exception Emilie, the title character, could have been left right out of the story and it wouldn’t have mattered.  I often complain about unnecessary secondary characters, but not often do I feel the title character is unneeded.  (Side note, I am reminded of a book in which the story was told by a mouse watching all the events going on, but never affecting them.  Anyone else remember this?)  In some ways this is more realistic, the teen girl doesn’t over take the entire trip.  But at times the crew seems to be crediting her with the successes, and I just don’t see what she did.

The ‘alien’ species that the crew meets in the center of the earth are also problematic for me.  They take the Star Trek approach, looking different but in reality completely human in nature.  That could come down to the YA nature of the book, but I would have liked to have seen at least a small amount of culture shock upon meeting.

I guess I just don’t know what the point is.  There was very little wonder and awe in the center of the world, with human like aliens involving the crew in human like problems.  It is Emilie’s story, but she is more bystander than participant.  And once again, Wells takes some interesting ideas and leaves me cold.  I got to learn to stay away.

3 stars.  Mostly based on a strong beginning. 

Review copy received from NetGalley.

On the other hand, Pauline loved ‘The Cloud Roads,‘ so your mileage may vary.


Fantasy Review: ‘The Cloud Roads’ by Martha Wells

Many works of fantasy tell epic tales without a single non-human character in them. Most have largely human casts with a sprinkling of non-humans thrown in for effect – a few elves or dwarves or demons. But here we have a world, it seems, with no humans in it at all. The main character, Moon, is a Raksura, a shapeshifter – a humanoid in one form, and a somewhat reptilian winged creature in the other. His family was killed long ago, leaving him to survive amongst the ‘groundlings’, a variety of humanoid species (or races, perhaps), by hiding what he is, and in fact not even knowing exactly what he is, until he finally meets up with other Raksura. How he adapts to his new way of life forms the body of the story.

It’s not easy to create a whole new species which feels believably ‘other’, and yet at the same time has enough recognisable human characteristics to be likeable, but the author does a brilliant job of it here. The Raksura are a social species, like ants or wasps, building colonies around a fertile queen, and with various different castes to fulfil the various roles. Queens, their consorts (fertile males) and warriors have wings, while the Arbora (drones or workers) are smaller and wingless. Yet in many ways a Raksura colony is very like hua man village. They bake bread and cook their vegetables, wear clothes and jewelry, fall in love and have sex at will, read and write, and so on. They also have mentors – historians and archivists who also have shamanistic powers.

The other species are just as well thought out, with an array of sentient beings of various shapes and sizes and temperaments, the Fell being the bad guys in the neighbourhood, being set, it appears at first sight, on destroying pretty much every settlement they can get their hands (or claws) on. They too are winged reptilian beasties and the Raksura can take them on, en masse, but the Fell currently have the upper hand. Wells doesn’t go into much unnecessary detail with the world she has created, simply describing this valley or that range of hills or lake as needed, but there are numerous ruins scattered about which tell of civilisations long gone. I don’t know whether these become important later in the series, but in this book they are simply there, structures and decorations crumbling into the forgotten black hole of unrecorded history. There are current civilisations, too, sometimes created in the ruins of the old, or in one case literally on top of it, where a species of sentient winged beetles has built a hive above a disintegrating city. I also loved the idea of floating islands, chunks of land which simply drift along on the air currents.

For all their non-humanness, the characters are incredibly real. Moon, in particular, is a wonderful mixture of shyness and suspicion and aggression, perfectly in line with his nature and upbringing, or lack of it. I was intrigued by the behaviours that came to him by instinct – his hostility when challenged, for instance, and the willingness to fight, which was common to all the Raksura, from the queens downwards. Despite the Raksura way of life, which necessitates a large number of characters, there were many whose individual personalities made them stand out – Chime, Stone, Flower, Pearl and Jade, for instance. The names sound odd, perhaps, but then it must be difficult to dream up names for all the children when they arrive in clutches of five at a time. It was hard to keep all the Raksura straight, though, especially the numerous warriors, hunters, teachers and so on, which made it more difficult to care when one was injured. And the Fell, despite the bestial nature of some of their castes, which seemed to do little beyond killing and eating pretty much anything, were given depth and reasons for some, at least, of their behaviour. It’s always good to find villains whose objectives are purposeful and reasoned, rather than simply being evil for the sake of it.

This is not a book of epic scope, involving vast armies and the future of empires, but those who enjoy action will find plenty to satisfy here. The problems at Indigo Cloud Court, their pursuit by the Fell and their attempts to escape and form a new, safer colony provide numerous conflicts, both aerial and grounded. It’s hard to describe aerial combat well and I occasionally got lost in the details, but it didn’t matter. I liked that both the Raksura and the Fell turned to ingenious and creative methods to attack and defeat their enemies, rather than simple brute force or magic. There is magic in this world, but it’s innate and low-key rather than dramatic, and it felt completely right to me. The ending leaves open enough loose threads for future books in the series, while tidying up this one nicely and bringing Moon’s relationship with Jade to a very satisfactory point with a perfectly judged moment (which I won’t spoil by describing).

I loved this book, absolutely loved it to pieces. It has all the characteristics I look for in my fantasy – characters I really care about who behave credibly, world-building that’s original and well thought out, subtle magic and a plot which derives from these factors. There are themes of real depth for those of us who look for more than action in fantasy – about how you come to terms with who you are, for instance, and about fitting in, even when you’re different. I found Moon’s transition from outsider to someone who belongs, and his awkwardly prickly relationship with the Raksura, to be endlessly fascinating. The book was a real page turner right from the start, and as Moon and his fellow Raksura are hounded and attacked relentlessly and the pace picks up, I found it hard to put down. A great read. Five stars. And now I’m terrified to read the next book in the series; it can’t possibly be as good, can it?

Fantasy Review: ‘The Wizard Hunters’ by Martha Wells

The land of Ile-Rien is under attack by the seemingly invincible Gardier, who use their black airships to destroy, then seemingly disappear.  The Gardier also somehow have the ability to block all the magic the Ile-Rien have for protection, and they also have a magic of their own that destroyed mechanized weapons.

Invincible army, one person holds an object of power, a person may wonder why I even cracked the cover of what seems like a very trite read.  I admit at times in the book I wondered the same thing.  There is some interesting stuff in this book, and in many ways it pushes beyond the cliches, but I can’t say it ever grabbed me.

What worked well in this book?  It had some unusual hooks.  The main character, Tremaine, is looking for a way to keep herself in danger, a death wish without the desire for people to know it.  This keeps her early motivations mysterious(though this plot line is almost completely discarded by the mid point).  Both the Ele-Rien and the Gardier are living a technological era where magic is in use everyday, not hidden from the common eye.  And there is an early culture clash when it is found the the Gardier hold a staging area in a land with a more “primitive” culture.

For all that almost nothing worked for me.  There just wasn’t the focus needed to make any thing work, none of the good ideas were really expanded on.  Tremaine has a death wish, but it is gone  halfway through the book, then explained away at the end.  Not transitioned out, just explained away.  The interesting first contact plot line is ruined for me by the ease of communication and by just how little difference there really is in the cultures, despite the characters seeming to think otherwise.  And the neat mix of technology and magic comes to nothing, as magic rules throughout the entire book.  The Gardier are given no depth, they are a faceless evil.  The “primitives” are shallow, following the typical book wherein they need to have all their traditions proven to be wrong by a more knowing culture.

The book could not seem to decide what it wanted to be.  At times high fantasy, escape story, war story, epic quest, and even a sad attempt at subversive espionage activities.  Perhaps if the focus had been on a couple of these items it would have worked better, but none were expanded on enough to catch my interested, making the whole read fairly disjointed. 

Lastly, and this is neither good nor bad, this book is definitely the first in a series.  There is very little resolution in this book, it is obviously a setup for the future.

And for perhaps the strangest nit-pick I have every had, every male character of note in the book had a name that started with either A, I, or G(mostly G).  Gardier, Giliead, Gerard, and Gervas.  I am not sure if anyone else reads the way I do, but this caused me to backtrack and figure out which character is which several times.

2 stars.  I can see it being of interest for fans who want something different, but for me it tried too many things, and did very few of them very well.  

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