Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The Hotel Under the Sand by Kage Baker

A girl is caught in a dangerous storm, and torn from everything she knows. She's cast adrift on a strange shore, and has to fend for herself...but she quickly meets a boy of about her own age, and comes to build a new society with him and the others who accumulate around them.

The Hotel Under the Sand is, surprisingly, very similar in premise to Terry Pratchett's 2008 novel Nation, though it goes in a quieter, more old-fashioned direction, and is more suitable for younger readers. Where Nation is a reasonably realistic novel -- though set in a world populated entirely by Pratchett characters, people a bit smarter and more self-conscious and English than is true in the real world -- Hotel is a tale for children, with a tone only slightly removed from the nursery and the classic 19th century stories meant to be read aloud by parents and guardians.

Hotel is the story of a girl named Emma,
a little girl both clever and brave, and destined -- so you might think -- to do well in any adventure that came her way. But the first adventure Emma had was dreadful.

One day a storm came and swept away everything that Emma had, and everything that Emma knew. When it had done all that, it swept Emma away, too.

It might have been a storm with black winds, with thunder and lightning and rising waves. It might have been a storm with terrible anger and policemen coming to the door, and strangers, hospitals, courtrooms, and nightmares. It might have been a storm with soldiers, and fire, and hiding in cellars listening to shooting overhead. There are different kinds of storms. (pp.11-12)
Hotel is also dedicated to a girl named Emma, though I have no idea what storms she may or may not have seen. But it's like Alice in Wonderland in that way -- being the fictionalized adventures of a character who shares the name of a person the author knows. In Emma's case, she's thrown, by that storm which Baker never specifies, onto a beach where a century before the Grand Wenlock Hotel was buried irretrievably by the Storm of the Equinox. She's told this by a helpful ghost, Winston, who had been the Bell Captain of that hotel, which was struck by disaster just as it was about to open for the first time.

The hotel -- which had a field that slowed time within its confines -- reappears in another storm, due to (unknowing) actions of Emma, and so she moves into it with Winston as a guide. Before long, a cook (and her dog), an only slightly scruffy pirate, and the runaway great-grandson (and last heir) of the hotel's owner have joined her there, and the hotel has opened for a group of very unlikely clients. (And Hotel's expected readers won't have any clue who any of them are -- and even I have to admit that I found one of the four groups utterly opaque.)

There are a few moments that have a bit of tension, but not much; this is a consolatory fantasy, and not one with sharp teeth. Emma and her friends win through in the end, as we knew they would. Hotel Under the Sand feels like it, like the Hotel Wenlocke, was buried in the sands for a century, kept untouched from the ravages of time -- not so much in the language, which is much like Baker's other work, though slightly simplified for this audience, but in the story-telling, which is in a style that's been out of fashion for children's books for at least four decades. It's a cozy book, for good or bad, and readers who treasure coziness will enjoy it the most.
Listening to: The Frames - Falling Slowly
via FoxyTunes

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