Book Review: “The Emerald Atlas” by John Stephens

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Kate P. barely remembers her parents. Heck, she doesn’t even remember her last name – only the letter P. Mostly she remembers the night her parents disappeared, when her mother gave her a cherished locket, told her to take care of her younger brother and sister, and promised to return someday. Since then, Kate, Michael, and Emma have spent ten years moving from one orphanage to another, never getting adopted, and never settling down for long. After the head of the Edgar Allan Poe Home for Hopeless and Incorrigible Orphans reaches the end of her patience with them, the P. children are sent to a remote orphanage in far upstate New York., so remote and far upstate that even at the end of the dock where a boat is supposed to pick them up, nobody seems to know where it is. The orphanage turns out to be a seedy mansion overlooking a miserable village where everything seems blighted and where there have been no children for the past 15 years. This is due to a certain tragedy that no one wants to discuss. There almost seems to be a curse about the place. Naturally, Kate and her siblings are the only orphans. Could it get any worse than this?

Well, yes, actually. While exploring the building, in the hope of getting lost less often and avoiding the wrath of the sarcastic housekeeper, the children discover a secret room that seems to appear by magic. In that room they find a book bound in green leather, whose pages appear to be blank. But there is something mysterious and powerful about this book. It reaches out and grabs Kate somehow. She starts having visions of strange places and dreadful times. And then, quite by accident, she and Michael and Emma learn that they can use the book to travel through time. Fifteen years in the past they find the adjacent town a very different place. The castle they live in belongs, in that time, to a beautiful but evil sorceress called the Countess, who has enslaved the whole town by taking all the children hostage. She commands an army of zombie-like monsters that the children call Screechers—their grown-up name is the equally creepy Morum Cadi—and she seems determined to find an object of terrifying power that has been lost for thousands of years. And—oops!—that object turns out to be the very book the P kids have found.

The Atlas, as it is called, is one of three “Books of Beginning” that contain all the magic left over from the creation of the world. Their last known address was the Library of Alexandria, before it burned down in 30 B.C. Since then, powers of good and evil have been searching for them. Dr. Pym, who runs the orphanage in Kate’s, Michael’s, and Emma’s time, is one of the good wizards. You already know which side the Countess is on. And now the children find out that all kinds of magical creatures dwell in the mountains around Cambridge Falls: dwarves, for example, and some horrible things too. Many of these beings, together with the townspeople and the villagers from the next valley over, are involved willingly or unwillingly in the search for the Atlas. Snatching the copy Kate brought with her from the future won’t do. Only one copy of a person or thing can exist for long at one point in time. The Countess wants the Atlas that belongs to her time—which, thanks to Dr. Pym, lies hidden in the abandoned Dead City of the dwarves, deep underground.

So the race to get to the book first is on, and it’s going to be a heated one. A dwarf king wants it for himself. The Countess and her minions are willing to threaten hundreds of lives, and even destroy a whole town, to get it—and she works for somebody (or something) even worse. Dr. Pym fears what will happen if it falls into the wrong hands. There’s a lot of power in the Atlas, and once all three books are brought back together, whoever controls them will be able to destroy and recreate the world at will.

In the last analysis, it’s all up to Kate, Michael, and Emma. For some reason, only they can find the Books of Beginning. A prophecy says so, evidently. Dr. Pym thinks so, and he’s pretty sharp. And the Countess has a strategy to ensure that Kate will bring the book to her, so she can double-cross her master and keep the power for herself. So basically, the fate of the world is in the hands of three children who have never had anything but each other. What lengths will Kate go to, to keep her family together? Will bookish middle child Michael find his courage in time? Will Emma, the fierce fighter of the family, ever learn to stay out of trouble? These questions and more are put to the test while these funny and likeable children struggle to heal from a lifetime of not knowing whether they can believe in their parents’ love. Plus, you know, they also have to save the town of Cambridge Falls, each others’ lives, and the world, all while trying not to be swept away by a torrent of danger, dark magic, and mystery.

This first installment in The Books of Beginning is an exciting first novel by a sometime television writer and producer whose name you may recognize from the credits of Gossip Girl, Gilmore Girls, and The O.C. It looks like a trilogy is planned; the second book, The Fire Chronicle, was published in 2013. I am eager to see where this series goes, after meeting these charming characters and experiencing the comedy, action, warmth, and spookiness that this book combines so well.

This book was excellent! I highly recommend this book – buy it now!
This book was excellent! I highly recommend this book – buy it now!