I've long been a fan of Kage Baker's science-fictional time-traveling cyborg series for adults, the Company novels. So when I heard she'd written a book for younger readers, I was excited to read it. This one is a fantasy story with an atmosphere of magical realism and elements reminiscent of traditional tall tales.
The story opens with a young girl named Emma. She is the sole survivor of a storm that has taken away absolutely everything - her family, her house, everything she owns except the clothing she wears. She fights for survival and ends up on the shore of a deserted, sandy island called, simply, the Dunes. Emma shows admirable grit and determination, as despite her intense sense of isolation and loss, she focuses on doing what she must in order to survive. We as readers do not witness the storm or ever hear details of the extent of her loss; it is left for the reader to imagine.
Her very first night on the island, she encounters a ghost - but he's such a nice, polite ghost that she finds it impossible to fear him. His name is Winston, and he tells her an incredible tale about a fancy hotel that had been built right there in the Dunes, an amazing hotel that, before it could even open, was struck by the Storm of the Equinox and buried completely under the sand many years ago. Unfortunately Winston, the Bell Captain, died in the storm, and his ghost remains in the Dunes, unable to leave his beloved hotel.
When Emma realizes the Dunes are about to be hit by another Storm of the Equinox, her fast thinking to save herself has the accidental benefit of uncovering the hotel. Her adventures that follow involve a mysterious treasure hunt, pirates,a friendly dog, a cook with an eye patch, a rather bratty orphan and the appearance of some highly unusual hotel guests.
The story has an old-fashioned feeling to it, and while many interesting and exciting things happen, there is also a quietness to the book that I found to be refreshing as well as captivating. I read this aloud to my 8- and 10-year-old daughters, and they enjoyed it thoroughly. It's an odd, sweet, unpredictable book with characters we grew to care about, particularly Emma, who is a plucky, resourceful girl. She carries on admirably despite the terrible loss she has suffered and makes a place for herself in the world. The lovely illustrations are a perfect complement to the text, effectively conveying its tone and atmosphere. The Hotel Under the Sand is touching, exciting, and funny, and we were all sorry when it ended.
The Hotel under the Sand by Kage Baker; illustrated by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law (Tachyon Publications, 2009)
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Charlotte's Library: "If you like slightly old-fashioned feeling stories, far removed from reality, with brave girls overcoming calamity, wondrous hotels and very strange hotel guests, and if you don't require lots of Dramatic Action Packed Adventure, and are able to tolerate a bit of pirate, you will probably like The Hotel Under the Sand a lot."
The Fantasy Book Critic: " The younger kids will have a great time exploring and learning, and Baker does a great job of writing at a level that most kids will understand and love, and not feel talked down to. While older readers, will find a charming and very heart grabbing story with this book, and also a very quick satisfying read"