The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens, is the first in a trilogy entitled The Books of Beginning. It certainly borrows from the longstanding tradition of children’s fantasy, standing alongside works like The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Percy Jackson, and many others. It does a good job of carving its own niche, and I look forward to the coming books in the series.
Kate, Michael, and Emma P. are not orphans, despite being shuffled between a great number of orphanages in the last ten years. They barely remember their parents, though Kate’s strongest memory is of her mother telling her to take care of her siblings while they’re away. Out of the blue, the siblings are taken in by the quirky, (Dumbledore-esque) Doctor Pym, who lives in an enormous, creepy manor in Cambridge Falls. As the children explore the house, they come across a secret door (that Michael swears was not there just a moment before) which leads to a room with a strange book in it. They discover that this book allows them to travel through time and space, and they begin to experience some of the terrible history of Cambridge Falls, discovering why the town has no other children and is quite somber. They learn about a hidden part of the world where magic is still present, where creatures like witches, screechers, and dwarves are quite real. They also discover that they are destined for something great and possibly terrible, their destinies tied with The Emerald Atlas and the other Book of Beginning.
I really enjoyed this novel overall. The world that Stephens has created is intricate, filled with some interesting characters and somewhat complex time-traveling. One of my friends read this just before I did, and he and I agree about the characterization. The secondary characters are really compelling, the primary antagonist–a witch who styles herself as The Countess–is insidious, sadistic, and horribly frightening. The Countess has a crony who is just as sadistic as she is; he pursues the children relentlessly, into the depths of the earth to track them down. The children are not as well drawn at first as I would have liked. They eventually become clearer, but Kate in particular I would have liked to have seen in a bit more detail. Emma and Michael each have their very specifically-drawn characters, each with their own proclivities and quirks. Kate is a bit more vague. She’s maternal and serious, but we don’t see many of her own desires. My only rationalization for this is that she’s become so consumed with keeping her brother and sister safe, with yearning for her parents, that she hasn’t allowed herself anything really personal. In this way, I think she’s interesting, and I’d like to see what would happen if her parents are ever recovered.
John Stephens’ narrative voice is excellent, with exciting action scenes and exposition that doesn’t feel too complex or overdone. Stephens has created a really interesting world, populated with characters who I want to get to know and follow. The mythology he’s built is also very intriguing, this first book brings out many questions for the upcoming novels. Anyone who likes The Chronicles of Narnia, A Series of Unfortunate Events or anything like them, will be interested in this. I really enjoyed it, and I’m ready for the sequel.
On another note, I really am impressed with the amount of detail that goes into many of the recent and current children’s fantasy. While I still firmly place the Harry Potter series atop that mound, there are many good options along the same lines. Children’s and YA literature are growing increasingly complex, urging children to expand their reading abilities and vocabulary, rather than maintaining complacence. That’s nothing against a large percentage of children’s literature, but I believe that this new wave of envelope-pushing literature is stimulating quite an interest for young readers. I love it!