Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Emerald Atlas -- John Stephens

Once again, I'm reviewing a book and I can't provide any direct quotes because I heard it on audiobook. Apologies for breaking with my book review promise to you!

This was another audiobook recommended by Parade magazine. Something about it made me think of long car trips on hot summer days in a tiny Ford Escort with no air conditioning, with my brother and I being "back seat buddies" together and feverishly working through puzzle books to solve mysteries alongside Agent Arthur and the other Usborne sleuths. Magical memories.

Before I commence with the review, let me be honest about something:

I have only read one Harry Potter book.

I know, I know. I'm a teacher! I work in literacy! I took classes on children's fiction! I read really fast so I could have finished them all in a few weeks over the summer! I have no excuses. It's sort of like how I have never seen any of the Star Wars movies either -- something the afore-mentioned brother once threatened to disown me for (he sewed his own Jedi cloak, to give you an idea of his fandom). So I admit that these books probably pale in comparison to "the real thing," a.k.a. Dumbledore and Hogwart's and all of that. Read the following with that in mind, please.

There is pretty much nothing not to like about The Emerald Atlas, the first in what will become a great new series (I hope). However, all of the tropes of a children's "hero's quest" story are here -- in droves. Three siblings are abandoned by their parents at an early age and are left to fend for themselves, first in some terrible orphanages and then at a strange mansion owned by an even stranger old man who seems to be some sort of wizard. Each of the children has a distinct personality and thus very specific strengths -- and weaknesses -- of character that come to play significant roles in the adventures that ensue. The children find an old book and soon discover it has magical powers to whisk them away to another time and place -- but the places it takes them are places filled with danger. The children soon discover that the book is highly sought after by a cruel witch; until she gets the book, she will torture innocent children and their parents, but once the book is in her possession she will use it to try to rule the world, so it's a lose-lose situation unless the children can find a way to stop her. However, the book has a power of its own that seems to be slowly changing at least one of the children...

Sound familiar? I know. I kept feeling reverberations of Narnia and Middle Earth as the story unfolded. But really, is that something to object to? Archetypal tales appeal to us because of their repetitiveness -- though the specifics are unique, the plot is one that satisfies a deep need we have for familiar patterns. Sure, some versions are more entertaining than others and offer a more individual "take" on the pattern -- but in the end, they all really boil down to the same basic steps.

I wouldn't necessarily say that Stephens will eventually rank with C. S. Lewis, Tolkien, and Rowling as one of the "greats" when it comes to this genre. The writing is good, but not exceptional. The path of the hero's journey here is entertaining but not unique enough to keep us guessing, really. But the three main characters are endearing: plucky little Emma with all her bravado and the unlikely friendship she strikes up with a man who saves their lives, bookish Michael with his love for all things dwarfish and his struggles to be the man of the house while still really being just a little boy who misses his parents, and of course Kate, the oldest child and the one with the heaviest weight on her shoulders as she tries to be a good mother to her siblings and keep her promises, even when those promises cause her great personal anguish. The supporting characters are entertaining, too (I really want to know more about the crabby old housekeeper!). The book does end with a cliffhanger of sorts, something I find a bit frustrating because it's as if we're being dragged into the sequel rather than excitedly anticipating it on the first book's merits alone. But it's a good story and well worth the time, if you have a love for solidly well-written children's literature and tales of adventure.

I'm curious to hear from any of you who read this one and can tell me how you think it compares to the likes of Harry Potter -- let me know!

Final verdict: ***

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