Now this is a fine looking book. This dreamy cover will capture the attention of Madeline L’engle and C.S. Lewis fans. This is smart marketing, considering I was reminded of these classic fantasy writers while reading John Stephen’s first book in a highly touted new series.
The story begins with a truly lovely and atmospheric prologue in which three young children are spirited away in the middle of a snowy night in a flying car. They end up in an orphanage, which is where we find them in Chapter One, living under the assumed last name ‘P.’ Kate is the oldest and therefore the most reliable; Michael, the middle child, has wiry glasses, a nervous disposition, and an absolute love and faith in the existence of trolls, due in part to a book about trolls that appears to have been left for him by his long-lost parents; Emma, the youngest, has a great sense of humour and spends most of the book exasperated with Michael. I am particularly fond of spunky Emma, who is the most likely of the Ps to get into a physical fight and often loses her temper with her sweet but bumbling brother. I love the relationship between her and her rescuer and provider, the handsome and stoic Gabriel, whose fierce spirit and survival skills she not only admires, but emulates.
The children are taken to a strange town near the border of the US and Canada where they stay in an old castle as the guests of a mysterious Dr. Pym. There seem to be no other children in the town. Eventually the Ps discover that they can travel through time by placing a photograph in the pages of a strange old book. In the past, the discover the horrifying Countess, who has learned to harness magic for the purposes of evil. Despite her power, she seeks an object, rumoured to be somewhere in the castle, and has rounded up the children of the village and threatened to kill one a day until someone brings her the object.
There are lots of familiar fantasy tropes here, but The Emerald Atlas is not derivative. Despite the inevitable comparisons to Harry Potter, this book is quite different and will appeal to more traditional fantasy fans. Stephens approaches the genre with fresh eyes and skillful storytelling ability, so instead of feeling like I had read this before (which is something I feel from time to time with lesser books), I felt like Stephens was able to create a reading experience that was both comfortable in it’s familiarity yet inventive and engaging in it’s details. This is a great family read aloud and a cozy comfort read for fantasy lovers, 9-12 years of age.
The Emerald Atlas is available now in hard cover from Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers.