The Hollow Kingdom (book 1), by Clare B. Dunkle

I picked this book up for the grand whopping total of fifty cents recently. Clare (no ‘i’) B. Dunkle seems to have written this trilogy, this site a separate science fiction book, ampoule and a fantasy/horror novel. Her bachelor’s degree is in Russian with a minor in Latin, although I haven’t seen any evidence of a Russian influence yet. This volume won the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award in 2004.

Kate and Emily Winslow are sisters who have been recently orphaned; they move to the country to live with a couple of great-aunts and a cousin. The great-aunts are nice to them, but the cousin (of an older generation) are not. While wandering about the grounds, they run into a very small woman named Agatha, and a larger man covered in a cloak. After this meeting, Kate develops a paranoia that people are watching her and following her, and as it turns out, they are. The Goblin King has decided that Kate would be a perfect Goblin Queen, and he will do almost anything to get her to agree.

A few things bothered me about this book. First, the inside cover copy is not very interesting. I probably wouldn’t have picked it up new, because it didn’t look like anything special, based on that copy. As a matter of fact, I wasn’t terribly interested in reading the book, even after I got it, because I thought it was going to be another run-of-the-mill girl-gets-captured-by-the-fey book. I’m normally not that dense. Second, I’m a bit of a concrete reader. By the first twenty pages or so, I want to know what year it is, where we are, and how old the main character is (within a few years; I’m not that picky). I had no idea about most of that until more than halfway through the book. (I did know we were in England.) There weren’t enough clues for me to place it ‘now’ vs. ‘then’ until quite a ways in, and even then, I thought it was the 1920s until it was mentioned that there were people moving to the city to work in textile factories. So as far as I can tell, this book takes place in the early Victorian era in England, and when the book starts, Kate is eighteen and Emily is eleven. Knowing these things might have confused me a little less.

Other than that, I thought it was fantastic. I really wasn’t expecting much (as evidenced by the first half of the previous paragraph), but I was very pleasantly surprised. This is a lovely little gem of a book. At only 230 pages, I feel qualified in saying that it’s ‘little’, but there’s certainly a good deal of story packed into those pages. Not only is the print a little on the small side, but there’s a fair amount of action, although not that much movement. One plot shift I thought was a tad abrupt (when one of the goblins was kidnapped), but I’m willing to forgive Ms. Dunkle that for the rest.

While it’s set in the early-ish 1800s, she didn’t ape Jane Austen’s (or Charles Dickens’s) language or writing patterns; there is a bit of an ‘old’ feel to the book, but more as if it were written in the 1950s than anything else. (To me, at least.) I very much appreciate that; using a (fake) idiom of two hundred years before might have ruined the beauty of the story. As much as I enjoy Jane Austen and Fanny Burney and other period works, I generally prefer those works as is. Her characters fit the time period, but felt timeless. It’s possible that the lack of concrete chronological details contributed to that, but I prefer to think it was the timelessness of her story and her characters. Emily asked all the questions, and Kate was the beautiful but generally practical one. Although Kate’s narration was often peppered with natural observations (stars, trees, whatnot), she wasn’t very fanciful, and she always tried to do the best with her situation.

I plan to read the two sequels as soon as I can find them, but until I do, this review will have to stand on its own. 4.5/5 stars.

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