Title: The Hollow Kingdom (Book I)
Author: Clare B. Dunkle
Rating: 4.5/5 stars
Warning: Possible spoilers ahead and also Trigger Warning for mentions of abusive relationships
So while I was trawling through Amazon looking for my creepy Gothic fantasy fix, I stumbled upon this little gem that had loads of rave reviews and sounded like something that would be right up my alley.
The Hollow Kingdom tells the tale of Kate and Emily, two orphaned sisters who find themselves sent off to the Hallow Hill estate to live with their aunts and guardian – the really quite detestable Hugh Roberts. While there, they discover that the lake and surrounding wilderness has a tragic history linked to their own family and that Hallow Hill is actually part of Marak the goblin king’s kingdom – and that Marak has sinister plans of his own concerning the eldest sister, Kate. Namely abduction, a forced marriage and baby-making to ensure the survival of his own kingdom underground.
My summary isn’t very good, but basically I can’t recommend this book enough. If you like Libba Bray’s Gemma Doyle Trilogy for creepiness or Holly Black’s Modern Faerie Tale for both creepiness and the level of research done into faerie-lore then you’ll love The Hollow Kingdom. I think this might be hands-down one of the creepiest YA Fantasy book I’ve ever read and I loved it.
But back to the review. So tell me, what do you think of when you hear the words “Goblin King”? Is it…
Or perhaps even…
To be completely honest with you all, when I read the description of the Marak (Goblin for “Goblin King” – all the Goblin kings are called Marak) all I could see in my mind’s eye was…
This. (Which probably just means I’m wayy too excited about Skyward Sword and absolutely gutted I don’t own a Nintendo Wii of my own). Only instead of being kind of hot and swish, he’s more grotesque and assymetrical – which is exactly as a goblin should be:
What Marak was, Kate didn’t know, but he couldn’t be a human, not with the big, bony head and tough, wiry body. The slightly bowed legs and large, knotted hands conveyed the idea of strength without grace…His face and hands were a ghastly pale gray, and his lips and fingernails were a dark tan – the colours, Kate thought, shuddering, of a corpse pulled out of water. His dull, straight hair fell, all one length, to his twisted shoulders. Most of it was a very light beige, but over one eye a coal-black patch grew back from his forehead, the long black wisps overlaying the pale hair like a spider’s legs. His ears rose to a sharp point that flopped over and stuck out through that rough hair like the ears of a terrier dog.
Most striking of all were Marak’s deept-set eyes.The left-eye was black; the right, emerald green and they gleamed at her as if lit from within.
Also he has six fingers. Now if that’s not a goblin I don’t know what is. It’s quite refreshing in a way, to see that in a YA Fantasy book that does feature a romance-of-sorts the goblin Marak is still very much portrayed as a goblin and not in the least bit beautiful, which I think is a problem a lot of YA Fantasy has sometimes – in that it can’t accept monsters looking like monsters if they’re meant to be a main character and have some romantic entaglements (hullo Twilight vampires, I’m looking at you).
Though I admit I’m only referring to Marak as a love-interest for lack of a better word and it’s not a word I’m particularly comfortable with in this case as The Hollow Kingdom does suffer a bit from Beauty-and-the-Beast syndrome. i.e. hideous monster abducts/forcefully holds beautiful girl against her will, she eventually discovers he’s not as bad as she first thought and they end up in love – and while I’m happy to believe that a girl (or anyone really) might end up trying to make the most of their situation as a captive (hullo Stockholm Syndrome) I can’t really accept that this can be considered love in any sort of traditional sense.
So it’s a good thing then, that The Hollow Kingdom isn’t a Beauty-and-the-Best story – it is very much more. While the premise sounds as unfeminist as I think such a story could get, I would certainly consider Kate and Emily to be very strong and capable heroines. For a good three-quarters of the book Kate spends her time out-smarting Marak and attempting to clever-her-way out of becoming a Goblin King’s bride – because understandably, the thought of being abducted and held captive for the sole purposes of propagating the Royal Goblin line – to put it quite mildly – irks her no end. She does this all the while trying to keep both her and her little sister safe, and she does this on her own as soon as it becomes clear that none of the human adults believe her – indeed they intentionally put her in harm’s way in an attempt to make her “face he fears” and persistently question her sanity.
When she does finally giver herself over to the Goblin King it is in order to save her sister – and when she becomes the Goblin King’s wife she is placed under a charm (in the shape of a snake tattoo) that will strike and paralyse anyone – including the wife herself – who attempts to harm the Goblin King’s wife. The Goblin King then has the option to do with this person as he sees fit. The device is made to control the wife and ensure that she cannot escape – and yet despite this Kate discovers a way to make the charm work for her. The charm was originally placed on her in order to remove her of her agency, and yet she eventually learns to manipulate the charm and use it as a tool to give her back control over her own life, which I love. Also she befriends the snake who has some of the funnier lines in the story:
“Charm, has this happened before?”
“Yes,” hissed the snake softly. “Two other King’s Wives have been outside without the King’s permission. One no longer had a king. He was dead, and she was awaiting the birth of the heir. The other was in danger when the Kingdom Spells gave way and her king was far from home. And one King’s Wife travelled by closed wagon with a loud, fat woman during the migration. But it is true,” it whispered,”that you are the first King’s Wife to travel by closed wagon with a loud, fat woman and without the King’s permission.”
As with Beauty and the Beast, Kate eventually discovers she quite likes living amongst the Goblins and that she has become quite fond of Marak over time – but thankfully unlike Beauty and the Best it isn’t Kate’s gentle womanly ways that softens Marak and convinces him to love her and free her – it’s the fact that she saves his entire damn kingdom while he is incapacitated and this leads to him realising he has no right to hold someone captive who had braved such dangers to save his kingdom.
Despite how strong Kate is as a heroine, there are quite a lot of problematic aspects of her relationship with Marak. Mainly that while he may treat her with respect in the end, at least for a good three-quarters of the novel he is nothing but abusive and controlling and that seems rather too easily forgotten and forgiven. Furthermore, while Marak does respect his new wife’s strength and intelligence even towards the end you get the sense that it is Kate’s baby-making potential that he admires the most and that is pretty problematic in itself, especially considering this.
This is why I can’t really accept Kate and Marak’s relationship as a love story – because I really don’t think it is. Kate makes the best of her time in the Goblin kingdom and grows to respect and admire Marak’s craftiness and magic skills, but the revelation that she has grown to love him feels pretty forced. Not to mention the hints that suggest she accepts goblin life almost because she’s come to fear humanity and how monstrous they can be – for while the Goblins are monstrous at least they cannot lie, whereas humans lie all the time, hiding their monstrousness. This is hardly the kind of ending that I would call happy and hardly the kind of situation that would lend itself towards a truly loving relationship.
As for Marak, I feel that he is very true to his character and makes a very convincing fey. Clare Dunkle has successfully presented him as a Goblin rather than try to shoe-horn in any human expectations or human notions of morality, and this is very refreshing. Faerie-type are meant to be largely amoral, which Marak is – but unable to lie, which Marak can’t – and he has his own set of principles that revolve mainly around honesty and ensuring he does right by his people, which he does – even if it is at the expense of his bride’s well-being.
That said, I am very much looking forward to reading the next book – which will focus on Emily who I felt throughout the novel might have always been the more interesting sister.