The Emerald Atlas: The Books of Beginning by John Stephens

Rating 8.9/10
Hurls you through a story of adventure, danger and magic that leaves you unable to put the book down

This was one of the most interesting books I have read in a very long time. It is a classic bildungsroman (coming of age tale) that breathes in the traditional elements of such a story, innovative and creatively adapted for maximum originality by John Stephens, the executive producer of Gossip Girls and a staff writer on the Gilmore Girls. That such a TV producer/writer would move into YA fantasy fiction is itself an unusual turn, coupled with the gifted prose of the tale itself, makes The Emerald Atlas a uniquely enjoyable experience.

One night many years before the beginning of our story, the parents of our protagonists Kate, Michael, and Emma gave them to unknown persons and disappeared, never to be heard from again. They grew up in a succession of unpleasant orphanages with nothing but the letter P as a last name. Convinced their parents are neither dead nor missing, they believe strongly that one day their parents will come for them. Finally they end up at the end of the orphanage line in a horrible black house with a mysterious owner, Dr. Pym, and his strange housekeepers. In the bowels of the house they stumble across a strange book that gives them the power to travel through time. Accidentally stranded fifty years in the haunted and dark past of the town around the house, they discover that not only is magic (including dwarves) real, but that a witch is searching for the very book they need to get back home.

It is difficult to say what about the book makes it so spectacular. Stephens has prose far more competent and skilled than many others writing in the same YA bracket, making the book a joy to read. The story is innovative and satisfying, constantly subverting your expectations. But the characters are what make the book truly come alive. Kate, Michael and Emma are marvellous people and it is perfectly clear that their sibling rivalry and quirky humour depends upon the adept skills Stephens honed on Gilmore Girls. The secondary characters are also realistic, well constructed and entirely human.

There is a definite fairy-tale feel to the story, but done in such a way to make the familiar trope original and satisfying. The villain of the piece is a witch of alluring beauty and has its share of underlings and minions and monsters, all of whom are as equally interesting as their heroic counterparts. Shaded groves, giant dilapidated English manor houses set high atop of hills overlooking the homely village below, witches, dwarves, quests for magical books that hold the power of time and creation itself. The Emerald Atlas is a dazzling debut full of surprises and mysteries waiting to unfold.
AT Ross

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Every now and then a book will come along that is so different, so unique and so thought provoking that half the internet love it and the other half hate it.

This is not that book.

The Emerald Atlas is an old fashioned book with an old fashioned storyline. It has abandoned children, an old wizard, dwarves, time travel, even a prophecy. And it’s good. The book is a fantastic read that pulls the reader in, tucks them up in a chair by the fire, puts a rug over their knees and hands them a cup of cocoa and a buttered crumpet.

Once you're snuggled up all warm and toasty with your crumpet and cocoa, however, the book reveals its true nature and hurls you through a story of adventure, danger and magic that leaves you unable to put the book down and sometimes a little seasick. But it still finds time to tuck that rug in a little more and put another crumpet on the toasting fork.

All of the characters are reminiscent of characters from other books (especially Doctor Pym who must be Dumbledore's long lost brother or at least a cousin). This is not necessarily a bad thing, though, as knowing the basics of the characters so well leaves you free to concentrate on the intricacies of the plot.

The three children at the heart of the tale, however, soon became three dimensional people in their own right and their personalities were a delight to read. The dialogue between the children is very funny and wonderfully realistic. I believed they were siblings right from the start and I could see how each of the children had been affected by the loss of their parents. Having three main characters you can believe in can make all the difference to a book.

The story is complicated and sometimes you do have to concentrate to remember where (and when) you are in the plot. There is time travel involved and as a result things do get a little twisty. But there's nothing wrong with a book that makes you concentrate as long as it rewards that concentration with an excellent story and this certainly does that.

If I had one criticism, it would be the amount of times Kate has to retell her story. Every time she meets someone new they ask what's going on and Kate tells them. Everything that's happened… From the time they lost their parents to that exact point in time. And as you read further into the book there's more for Kate to tell. With the time travel involved she even ends up telling the same person the whole tale twice! By the end, I was really wishing the kids had just gotten together and written it all down or maybe just handed a copy of the Emerald Atlas over to each new friend and told them what page they were up to!

This book may not be startlingly original but sometimes familiar is just what you need in a book and the story this one tells certainly held my attention and my interest. I really enjoyed reading The Emerald Atlas and cannot wait to read the next books in the trilogy.
Andrea Chettle

This The Emerald Atlas: The Books of Beginning book review was written by and AT Ross

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