Since Alice in Wonderland, fantasy has been a staple of children’s literature. Today it’s a deep-rooted tree with many branches: medieval, urban, animal, paranormal, horror, space, mythological, dystopian, steampunk, speculative, etc. Plain ol’ fantasy can be defined as stories set in a different world than our own, or in an alternate reality laid beside our own, powered by magic with magical creatures, featuring humans or humanoids (such as wizards and witches) as main characters.
For the spring publishing season, Knopf has been heavily promoting the first volume of a trilogy called The Books of Beginning, by John Stephens. Installment #1, The Emerald Atlas, was released on April 7 to respectable if not rave reviews. The content is as generic as Mr. Stephens’ name. It’s almost as if Knopf is launching a back-to-basics movement: let’s not get carried away by all this dystopian-paranormal-steampunk stuff; here’s a classic in the Tolkein mold!
The Emerald Atlas, by John Stephens. Knopf, 2011, 432 pages. Age/interest level: 10-14.
The story: Kate barely remembers when her parents disappeared, and her younger siblings Michael and Emma don’t remember them at all. The children have been living a miserable existence (think A Series of Unfortunate Events) until they are sent to Cambridge Falls, a place that exists only in another dimension (like in A Wrinkle in Time and His Dark Materials). There they make the acquaintance of the mysterious Dr. Pym, their new guardian, who knows much more about them than they were led to believe. He knows they are children of destiny (like Percy Jackson) whose parents (like Harry Potter’s) were involved in combating a massive evil plan (like countless fantasy central conflicts, satirized in the title of one of James Patterson’s Maximum Ride installments, Saving the World and Other Extreme Sports). From Dr. Pym’s house, they are launched on an adventure that takes them forward and back in time, touches the magical foundations of reality, plunges them into desperate situations and hairbreadth escapes, and thoroughly confuses the reader—meaning me, who suffers from menopausal memory. Younger readers will enjoy the action and humor and swift pacing, as I did except when confused by the time shifts or distracted by echoes of Lord of the Rings, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Orpheus, Star Wars, et al. Every fantasy author draws from a well of common fantasy elements and themes, but the world he constructs should have enough authenticity of its own that the readers doesn’t hear those echoes. The Emerald Atlas doesn’t quite cover its tracks, for me. The author writes well—sometimes beautifully—though I was sometimes distracted by his habit of double punctuation (?!) and run-on sentences.
The Atlas of the title is the key to time travel, and I presume that the two other “Books of Beginning” will be central to parts two and three of the trilogy. What I find most interesting, though, is how many fantasies incorporate a magic or secret book that contains the mystery. Endymion Spring (reviewed here; scroll down), Inkheart (ditto), The Tempest, Artemis Fowl, vol. 1, The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel, and many more. That seems to be characteristic of western fantasy, though; do Asian and African tales have the same emphasis? I doubt it.
I’m wondering if the Bible, as the foundation-book of western civilization, has planted the idea of “the book” firmly in western consciousness. If so, fantasy is one expression of our deepest desires, answered by faith. The secret book is right under our noses and the quest to understand it is our daily walk. In this world we live in, the morning stars sing for joy, the mountains skip like rams, the trees clap their hands. “Alternative reality” is right here.
Questions to think about:
- What other fantasies can you name that feature a secret book? How does the book influence the story?
- The major characters of The Emerald Atlas, besides Kate and her siblings, are Dr. Pym, the Countess, the Secretary, Gabriel, Hamish, and Robbie. What characters from other stories can you compare them to?
- Choose two or three adjectives each to describe Kate, Michael, and Emma.