I’ve previously read Goblins at the Gate by Ellis Knox and loved it, and was looking forward to delve again into his brand of alternate-fantasy-history.
What to Expect
Into the Second world is a novel of nineteenth-century exploration and adventure, in the style of contemporary masters like Jules Verne and HG Wells. In fact, the novel is very much an homage to “Journey to the Center of the Earth”, but with a unique spin.
Knox builds an alternate history where magic is real, and everything feels both familiar and fantastic. The world is very much mid-nineteenth century, with the latest scientific discoveries of the age, but also Steam engines powered by phlogiston, that magical element of fire. Five races inhabit the earth: humans, dwarves, elves, gnomes, and ogres, and Darwin has recently published his “On the Origin of the Five Folk”.
The novel itself follows Gabrielle Lauten, a newspaper reporter – sorry, journalist – who love to write popular articles about ‘Science!’ (with an exclamation mark, which isn’t quite the same as modern ‘science’), as she joins a group of explorers attempting to rescue a lost expedition. Their journey follows myths about the origin of the species, going further and further into the Earth to find a lost world.
What I liked
I grew up on classic authors like Verne and HG Wells, Jack London and H. Rider Haggard, so finding another work in the same style – but mixing my love of fantasy – was a joy. The writing style both fits the period and accessible to modern readers. I loved the use the author made of period discoveries and theories, of taking real scientists and devices and adapting them to the magical setting.
The plots are adventures into the unknown, with a clear under layer of social criticism that would resonate still with current readers. The story start in a way that reminds one of Marie Brannan’s ‘Natural History of Dragons’ – the protagonist is a woman in love with science, fighting acceptance in a chauvinistic society. As they journey deeper, so doe the subjects of class and race issues.
What to be aware of
Like Knox’s other work, and like many authors of the style he imitates, there isn’t exactly an antagonist. It’s a story of man-versus-nature, where protagonists self-discovery comes from being pitted against the environment and their struggles expose their inner workings. It’s not a style that’s common these days, and though the novel starts with similarities in tone to Brennan’s Lady Trent the focus is more on the journey and the discoveries.
Felix has read a few adventures into fantastical lands (from Herodotus and Ovid, to Lucian of Samosata), so felt quite comfortable in this style of natural history. At times, he found both the protagonist journalist and the professor trying, with their constant bickering that they couldn’t get past. He also found some sections a tad too long, and felt the pace could be quickened.
If you love classic tales of adventure, if you love the mixing of amazingly-researched historical settings with fantasy elements, this is a book you should read.