Book review: The Hotel Under the Sand, by Kage Baker

28 05 2017

Kage Baker was an American SF / fantasy author whose work, principally her ‘Company’ series of time-travel novels, was shortlisted for Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Awards, and won the Theodore Sturgeon Award and (posthumously) the Nebula.


The Hotel Under the Sand is a short novel, primarily for children, that describes the adventures of castaway orphan Emma following her discovery of the fabled time-distorting Grand Wenlocke Hotel, newly re-emerged from the sand dunes beneath which it had been buried in an equinox storm. At first, her only companion is the (friendly) ghost of the hotel’s late Bell Captain, but as the days go on others make their way to the Grand Wenlocke: a cook, a sailor who insists he’s not a pirate, an heir, miscellaneous guests. The adventures that follow are ingenious and not too intense, and the book reaches a measured and satisfying conclusion.

The story seems much more strongly reminiscent of British children’s fiction than of any US tradition with which I’m familiar; the setting and the sense of boisterous whimsy show echoes, I think, of Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark as well as, say, Mervyn Peake’s Captain Slaughterboard. Baker’s worldbuilding is intriguing and sprinkled with random bits of fascinating invention, while her gentle characterisation still admits of human foibles: the central character set feels somewhat restrained, but they’re well fleshed-out.

The book is fairly obviously aimed at a young audience, but it’s sufficiently fast-paced, quirky, and subtle that it also works reasonably well as reading matter for adults. It would have been interesting to see where Baker next took the series, but the book, like its protagonist, is an orphan, alone in its world: Baker died several months after its publication.