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The Hotel Under the Sand, by Kage Baker


Title: The Hotel Under the Sand
Author: Kage Baker
Illustrator: Stephanie Pui-Mun Law
Publisher: Tachyon
Format: Trade Paperback
Year: 2009
Pages: 180
Genre: Fantasy, YA
  Subgenre: Low Fantasy
Full Disclosure: Nothing to report.

Nine-year-old Emma loses everything she has in a fearsome storm and finds herself alone in the wilderness of the Dunes—an area desolate since the mysterious disappearance of a resort known as the Grand Wenlocke. Finding a friend in Winston, the ghostly bellboy who wanders the Dunes, Emma learns that it has been more than 100 years since the hotel with an unsavory reputation vanished; but, unbeknownst to either of them, the long slumbering resort has just begun to stir. Allying herself with a motley crew of companions—the ghost bellboy, a kindhearted cook, a pirate with a heart of gold, and the imperious young heir to the Wenlocke fortune—Emma soon learns that things are not always as lost as they seem, especially if you have a brave heart and good friends.

My Review
YA -- and middle grade, which is technically where this book falls -- is not a genre I actively avoid, but not one I seek out either. I tend to find well-written YA/MG books charming but slight, ultimately forgettable. But I have been working my way through everything Kage Baker wrote, so I picked up this book on a hot afternoon, when I was in the mood to be delighted rather than challenged.

I was, indeed, delighted. If there is one common thread through Baker's work, through her fantasy in particular, it is a sense of warmth. She did not write epic plots, though sometimes the world was at stake; nor did she write secondary worlds detailed to the point of obsession, though her worlds were certainly unique and memorable. She wrote people, lovely, flawed, human people, struggling to find -- no, to make -- happiness for themselves in a world neither benign nor malevolent but simply indifferent. That warmth is present in spades in The Hotel Under the Sand, and it is exactly right for the age group this book is aimed at.

Unfortunately, I was still left feeling that the book was too lightweight for my tastes. I kept comparing it to Catherynne Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making -- another middle grade book by one of my favorite authors, writing in the tradition of children's books from the 19th century -- and it kept coming up just a little short. For a story to be great, it needs the right balance of light and dark, both triumphs and tragedies, whether they are large or small. The Hotel Under the Sand doesn't have quite enough of the dark. It has a villain, but where Valente made her villain ultimately heartbreaking, Baker's villain is nothing but a caricature.

I can forgive the caricature in part because the book isn't really about its plot at all -- the plot is simply the scaffolding that the characters and the world hang on. But what the book is about is grief: it opens with Emma alone and bereaved and choosing to fight for her survival anyway, and it closes with Emma finally able to stop fighting for a moment and cry for what she has lost. Baker handled Emma's grief delicately, captures it in all the times Emma (and the narration) looks away, but she chose to keep what Emma was grieving for a mystery to the reader, and because of that I never quite connected as, for example, I did when reading the same sort of treatment in Patricia McKillip's The Changeling Sea. I grieved for Emma but never with Emma, and so the book remained insubstantial. Charming, but slight.

My Rating
Overall Satisfaction: ★★★★
  Intellectual Satisfaction: ★★★
  Emotional Satisfaction: ★★★★1/2
Read this for: The atmosphere
Don't read this for: The themes
Bechdel Test: Pass
Johnson Test: Fail
Books I was reminded of: The Enchanted Castle, by E. Nesbit; The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M. Valente; The Changeling Sea, by Patricia A. McKillip.


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