Friday, November 30, 2012

Sara's Library: The Emerald Atlas

The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens
Book one in The Books of Beginning trilogy
Knopf 2011
The P. orphans (surname unknown/withheld), Kate, Michael, and Emma, have been shuffled from orphanage to orphanage for as long as they can remember, ever since a deadly accident robbed them of their parents on a Christmas Eve ten years ago.  After being kicked out of their orphanage, the siblings are taken in by the mysterious Dr. Pym, who lives in a mansion in the dying town of Cambridge Falls.  While exploring the house, the kids discover a strange book and begin to uncover the secret behind the town's current status.  Eldest sibling, Kate, has the ability to time-travel via photographs, and through this new power, the group uncovers the sinister secrets behind the town's decay, including a Russian countess and vanishing children.

While the description of the book can sound a bit generic and there are definitely pieces borrowed from other children's fantasy novels (orphans, a stay at a mysterious house, a wise old benefactor who happens to be a wizard, etc.), Mr. Stephens weaves these tropes together expertly to create an ambitious introduction to his series, The Books of Beginning.  My only real complaint is that I had difficulties placing the time period in which the novel takes place.  The time-travel bits seem turn-of-the-century, but in the present the kids use a Polaroid camera.  I can understand not wanting to be too specific with the periods, but even a decade named would have helped me.

Honestly, I didn't have the highest of expectations when I began reading this for my book club, but I ended up reading it in one sitting.  The pacing is very good, in this regard; I never found myself being bored by useless or endless exposition.  Now, I will say, that I am very much a fan of fantasy, so being able to connect this work to predecessors in the genre wasn't the drawback for me that it may be to some.  It's not wholly original, but what it does, it does very well, and the way Mr. Stephens handles time-travel is intriguing.  And, anywhere there are Scottish dwarves, I'm there.  I would definitely recommend this to young fantasy readers who have finished Narnia and Harry Potter.

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