The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens
InThe Emerald Atlas, a book that is the whispered heir to Harry Potter, His Dark Materials,Lord of the Rings, and the Chronicles of Narnia, Kate, Michael and Emma are shuffled from one orphanage to another, until they finally arrive at an old mansion run by a mysterious man named Dr. Pym, who possesses a mysterious atlas that allows them to travel inside photographs, through time and space. Unfortunately, there is great evil just off camera in these photographs, the kind that requires epic adventures (probably over the course of several books) to vanquish……
So this book had a few things going against it – 1) it’s a middle grade book, 2) I hate when people call anything “the next Harry Potter” and 3) the author was a former writer for the OC and Gossip Girl, and that is the LAST person I expect to write an epic fantasy. An epic chicklit, maybe, (and I’d certainly check it out!) but fantasy? Uh, weird…..
HOWEVER. In spite of these negatives I gave it a read, and WOW. And to argue with myself: 1) Harry Potter was a middle grade book when it started, and, well, two words: Deathly Hallows. 2) Rarely is “the next HP” or the “next Pullman” EVER deserved, but in this case, I’d say people aren’t really exaggerating, and 3) we don’t judge a book by its cover, so why should we judge an author by his day job? John Stephens is absolutely a fantasy writer.
Are the elements of fantasy blindingly original? No. But they don’t necessarily need to be to deliver a great story. The beginning scenes of the book show the children leaving their parents in the dead of night, fleeing some faceless evil hellbent on destroying them due to a very unfortunate prophecy. They may as well have been riding on Hagrid’s motorcycle. But you know what, it’s still exciting! A wise and all-knowing Dumbledore-Gandalf hybrid wizard presides over the escape, and seems to pop up frequently as a magical mentor-to-the-light-side. Do I necessarily mind the distinct waft of Gimli fromLord of the Rings drifting off Robbie the dwarf? Nope. And one sibling’s flirtation with the dark side will call up strong memories of Edmund’s bargain with the White Witch in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. So in a lot of ways, the atlas is not a portal to another time and place, so much as a whirlwind portal through every one of your favorite fantasy memes. But you won’t really find yourself minding too much, because the story has heart, and the characters feel fresh and fully fleshed out.
The Countess was a positively vile villainess. She’s a tsarist Russian countess, so she claims, though she very much enjoys French taunts, and she likes to brag about having poisoned her husband, and having flung acid in the face of a rival. She has Dementor-like Screechers at her disposal, which she uses to terrorize the town of Cambridge Falls and kidnap all its children. The Countess forces the men of the town to search the vast and dangerous underground caverns for the Emerald Atlas. You know, the very thing that Kate, Michael, and Emma just brought with them through the photograph? Yeah, that one. Yikes!
I love Kate, the big sister trying to play protective Momma Katherine to her younger brother and sister, and Michael, the resident read-it-all who is obsessed with dwarves (this obsession comes in pretty handy when they encounter Robbie and his cohorts). But the real standout character for me is Emma. She is as feisty, loving, and loyal as Lyra Belacqua in His Dark Materials. Emma is brave beyond her capabilities, and wears her emotions on her sleeve. Her relationship with Gabriel, the giant redwood of a man who lends a helping hunking hand to the children and the town in fighting off the Countess, reminds me of Lyra and Iorek Byrnison’s loyal and fierce friendship. It’s the kind of friendship that really only makes sense in fantasy books. They meet, they size each other up, realize they’re working for the same side, and then are pretty much undyingly devoted to each other (and it’s not gross or romantic).
G: “Hi, I’m Gabriel.”
E: “Hi, I’m Emma.”
G: “You with the Countess?”
E: “No way, gross!”
G: “Me either, she’s a hag!”
E: “I would die for you, Gabriel.”
G: “And I for you, Emma.”
E: “Cool, then let’s go find some super dangerous trouble!”
G: “After you!”
The relationships between the siblings, between Kate and her parents, and Michael and Captain Robbie are also of the feel-good-fantasy variety. Each of the characters has to find hidden reserves of bravery, test their own limits, and figure out where their loyalties lie and who they can trust.
One guy you definitely CAN’T trust is the Dire Magnus, a super-powerful Voldemort-like villain who shows up in the final act. This guy makes the Countess look like a foot-stamping Blair Waldorf instead of the archvillainess she’d been minutes before his arrival. He also sets the stage for the next book in the series, which promises to be action-packed, and to revisit many more fantasy roads well-traveled.
Ok, I’ll stop blubbering on. Read the chapter sampler for yourself. And behold the extended cut trailer below.