by Kage Baker
Tachyon Publications, 2009
It was actually kind of accidental that I read this so soon after reading my first Kage Baker story ever. I saw this before Nell Gwynne's Scarlet Spy arrived at my house, and placed a hold on it simply because the summary was so compelling to me. And then it came up just after I finished Scarlet Spy.
This, unlike the previous story, is a children's book. And it is a wonderful, wonderful children's book. I am already planning to read it with my parent-child book club when I go back to work, and even more ridiculously I am planning to read it to smallfry when she is old enough to comprehend it. (Perhaps six? seven? years from now.)
The story begins with Emma, blown to the Dunes by a storm. And this is as much as we find out about Emma's past; we know that she has lost everything, though what "everything" is remains unspoken. I think this is a good choice, because unspoken the loss is more terrible, at least given the amount of space Baker had for creating a backstory for Emma. Despite her disaster, Emma is brave, resourceful, and not about to be beaten or cowed, not even when, upon her first night at the Dunes, she encounters a ghost.
This story is an exercise in simplicity that isn't the least bit simplistic. It has a straightforward plot and straightforward characters, without a lot of flowery embellishment; there is not a single unnecessary word in this story, I don't think. This style was evident in Nell Gwynne's Scarlet Spy, too, and it works wonderfully well for a children's story. But despite the simplicity of the writing and the plot, there are deep themes here: loss, loyalty, time, friendship, and family among them.
Emma is working through a terrible loss, and while it's not mentioned often it squats just off-stage to rear its head every once in a while. Each of the other characters, as they are introduced, have lost as well, some more than others. There is an interesting pragmatism about loss in this book, too; there is not a lot of dwelling on anguish or loneliness, but an acceptance of the pain for what it is. This means that though the mood of the story could have been melancholic or nostalgic, it is instead hopeful and forward-looking.
There's enough mystery and excitement to keep most readers riveted, I should think, and conflict as well as triumph for the characters. Not to mention that those with active imaginations are going to absolutely adore the idea of an entire hotel, an entire world almost, buried under a sand dune just waiting for the right person to come along to discover it. A thoroughly enchanting story and I'm so glad it caught my attention. Recommended for all ages, and this book has cemented Baker in my pantheon of authors I will be happy to read whenever the opportunity presents itself.