The Emerald Atlas is the first book in the Books of Beginning series, a new middle grade fantasy series by John Stephens. Random House has put so much marketing hype behind this series that I am finding it a bit difficult to objectively assess the book. It doesn't jump out at me the way, say, the first Harry Potter book, or The Golden Compass did. But I did enjoy it. And I would certainly recommend it to middle grade and young adult readers looking for an intriguing new fantasy series.
The Emerald Atlas is the tale of three functionally orphaned siblings who discover a magical book, and then find themselves to be the subjects of a prophecy concerning the book. There are wizards, dwarves, and cruel orphanage matrons. There are children in peril and sibling rivalries. There's a mix of timeless fantasy (hidden dwarf cities, monsters the lurk underground) and humor. ("Soon the great hall reverberated with the echoing symphony of burping dwarves.") There is time travel, with the resulting paradoxes explained plausibly.
The relationships and emotions of the characters stood out for me in this book. Kate, Michael, and Emma are classic orphaned siblings in some ways, mutually dependent and fiercely loyal. The oldest, Kate, takes on more responsibility than she should, and suffers the most from the loss of parents she can remember. The middle child, Michael, is a geeky kid, picked on, and generally found with his head in a book, but showing occasional flashes of a bravery. The youngest, Emma, is a true spitfire, but she develops a close friendship with a man who helps the children, something of a parent-child bond, though with Emma as Gabriel's sometime-rescuer. I think that John Stephen's background as a writer for Gilmore Girls and the O.C. comes through here - the personal dramas carry as much resonance for him as the epic plot actions. And that does, I think, raise the Emerald Atlas up a notch from many middle grade fantasy series.
Here are a couple of examples of Stephens' characterization:
"All in all, he looked like someone who had gotten dressed in the midst of a whirlwind and, thinking he still looked too presentable, had thrown himself down a flight of stairs." (Page 4)
"Alone with her secretary, the Countess apparently felt no need to be charming or to act the part of the airy, gold-speckled teenager. She looked the same, certainly, but her manner, her voice, everything about her now spoke of power, malice, and a greedy, jackal-like hunger.
Cavendish sucked in his head like a turtle. He spoke in moist little gasps." (Page 125)
And here are a couple of examples of the book's general tone:
"... for a brief moment, she realized the insanity of their situation. They were inside a mountain, under the remains of an ancient dwarf city, about to dive into a black pool where a monster might or might not still be living, all so they could retrieve a lost magic book. What was she thinking?" (Page 264)
"Even Michael, whose sense of personal dignity as the only boy in the family kept him from ever appearing too effusive, had to remove his glasses and rub at his eyes because he "got some dirt in them."" ((Page 305)
I quite liked the ending of The Emerald Atlas - it reminded me of one of my favorite movies (I won't say which one, because I think it would be a bit of a spoiler, but it's based on a children's picture book). I will be looking forward to the remaining books of the series. Recommended for middle grade and young adult readers, even those who are not generally fantasy fans.
Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers (@RandomHouseKids)
Publication Date: April 5, 2011
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher
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