The Emerald Atlas, by John Stephens, was quite an interesting read. Obviously I am not intended as its primary audience; it is a book intended for “middle grade” children (8-12), but I never allow things like that to sway me – plenty of so called ‘Children’s’ books have found popularity amongst those older than the core audience. Harry Potter, Twilight and the Chronicles of Narnia spring to mind.
In the current climate, any fantasy children’s title is going to be compared against the likes of Harry Potter and, with the resurgence in interest following the movies, the Chronicles of Narnia. Most, I think, are likely to be found wanting for the comparison. It is all too easy to forget that underneath the hype, the controversy, the glamour and the movie deals, at the core of these are very good stories. A good storyteller does this so well that it is easy to underestimate the amount of craft and imagination that goes into them, leaving many to believe they can do it just as easily, with oft’ poor results.
The text on the back of the copy I read for this review made no secret of its intentions. “In the tradition of C. S. Lewis, J. K. Rowling and Phillip Pullman.” They have invoked the closest thing that exists to a holy trinity of children’s fiction, The Chronicles of Narnia, Harry Potter and His Dark Materials. Stephens, or his publishers, are not looking to be an also-ran but to sit at the grown-ups table with the legends.
So, the question is; how well does it succeed?
Its difficult to say if the comparisons are inevitable, I suspect they are, or if they are partially inspired by the bold claims on the cover, however I spent the first few chapters feeling like I was working my way down the Children’s Fantasy Checklist.
1. Precocious Child Protagonist(s) – Check
2. Shadowy Important Destiny – Check
3. Absent/Dead/Non-Factor Parents – Check, with the tried and true “Orphans” method.
4. Miserable Childhood with no apparent chance of relief – Check
5. Sudden rescue by mysterious benefactor – Check
6. Hidden world unknown by most people – Check
7. Hints (and eventual proof) of previously unknown supernatural powers – Check
If you note, at this point we could be talking about Harry Potter itself (or any of a hundred other stories in the genre). The main mystery was interesting, but I must say for the first quarter, or perhaps third, of the book I had it firmly placed in the also ran category, offering little that was different and much of a muchness.
The story is a standard Protect the World from the Big Bad™, where we find our outmatched children forced to turn the tide of an evil both old and powerful. The key to the story is a set of three magical books, within which the ancient all-powerful wizards sealed away their knowledge as they felt their control of the world slipping away. Only one of these books, the Emerald Atlas of the title, bears any relation on the story itself – the others are presumably left for the secret. Not by co-incidence, we also have three young protagonists who have been prophesised to discover and unlock the secrets of these tomes.
The Emerald Atlas provides the power to travel through time and space to its chosen wielder, the eldest of our protagonists, and they find it not long after their benefactor saves them from the worst in a long string of terrible orphanages. Initially they discover its purpose when they accidently trigger it by placing a photo into the atlas and finding themselves many years in the past, when an evil sorceress had moved into the house they themselves have been occupying and proceeded, with the aid of obedient monsters, to kidnap all the children to force the parents to dig for a hidden and buried treasure.
The children make all manner of allies, including a tribe of magical humans who resemble a low-tech close-knit group, complete with shamanistic magic and fearsome war parties, a powerful and incredibly old wizard possessed of seemingly unquenchable cheerfulness and a group of very dwarfish dwarves (and one not very dwarfish dwarves). The action takes place across time as the children attempt to change history and save a group of children from being killed and the entire forest from being destroyed, many years ago.
Somewhere after the first third of the book, something changed. The events began to flow quite well, the characters became well rounded and interesting, and the adventures seemed a little less formulaic. It stopped being something I was rolling my eyes out and became a story that I quite enjoyed; indeed, one I might look forward to reading to my own little one when she gets a little older.
Its roots are still very plain to see. We have a setup similar to Harry Potter, some of the charm of the chronicles of Narnia (including the magical portal-type device) and a touch of the darkness evident in both the later Potter books and the Pullman series. It mixes all these together well and pulls of something quite entertaining, though never really original in any sense.
It is quite possible that this series may well rise to be greater than the sum of its parts, but it will take the rest of the trilogy to determine whether or not this is the case. In the meantime, it is an entertaining and worthwhile read that will likely find its way into the hearts of many children who delight in the fantastic, however I don’t think it quite reaches the heights to which it aspires. Not yet, in any case.