Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Book Review: The Emerald Atlas

We are knee deep in end-of-the-school-year activities, but our summer schedule is beginning to beckon to us.  And one of the highlights of our summer plans is that my son's Mock Newbery Club will be starting up again in June.

In honor of the approaching restart of that activity, I read one of this year's books for the tween audience that had been recommended by our FABULOUS local independent bookstore, Quail Ridge Books.  That book is The Emerald Atlas by first-time book author John Stephens (he has a background in television production).  It is a fantasy novel that is presumably the first of a trilogy (an increasingly prevalent trend in fantasy novels).

Stephens said he was inspired to write children's novels after reading Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (which I wrote about in an earlier post).  And it kind of shows (terrible grammar, I know, but I can't think of a better way to express it).  That is, at first when I was reading it, it felt like "been there, done that."  It seemed like a little bit of many of the most popular young adult fantasy series in recent years--some His Dark Materials, some Harry Potter, a little Reckless, a bit of Incarceron, with even a dash of A Series of Unfortunate Events thrown in.  Our FABULOUS local children's librarian admitted that she had begun it, but hadn't been able to get into it, and I was sort of feeling the same way.

However, I persevered, and in the end, I'm glad I did.

The story centers around three siblings.  Again, I have to admit I found them somewhat generic--the responsible older sister, the brainy/bookish/fantasy-nerdish middle brother, and the "spunky," defiant youngest sister.  The children have been shuttled from orphanage to orphanage, in part because they insist, based on a foggy memory of the oldest sister of the night that they were taken from their parents, that their parents will return one day to reclaim them.  They end up in a strange, out of the way orphan's home where they are the only children, in the care of the mysterious Dr. Pym in an abandoned mansion with many secrets.

As is common in these stories, the children discover something that transports them to a fantasy world of dwarves, monsters, giants, and beautiful but deadly antagonists.  This world is battling over the control of some almost-mythical books that appear to have a special connection with the three siblings.

It is not giving away too much of the plot (since it is revealed early on) that the crux of this book involves time travel.  And while it takes a while to develop this plot line, I think it is this theme that redeems the book.  The whole treatment of the time traveling is quite thought-provoking, almost metaphysical.  So as someone who majored in philosophy in college, that's something that grabs my attention.  It even has a bit of that Inception feel of being confused about what layer of time you are working on at times.   So that fact that it makes me have to think about how this intersection of different "histories" work together lifts it beyond the generic fantasy YA novel for me.

Also, the backbone of this book (again, like many other in this genre) is about family.  Finding family, protecting family, trusting family even through conflict and doubt, and even creating family from strangers when yours aren't around.  So while this is not an original theme, it is always a rich one, especially for the early adolescents who are beginning to question or pull away from family ties.

In the end, I recommend it.  I don't really see it as a Newbery contender, but I think it was worth my while reading it, and I'm looking forward to seeing what they do in the next book.

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