Friday, July 1, 2011

Audio Review: The Emerald Atlas

At first glance, John Stephens's The Emerald Atlas seems pretty familiar, with all the classic elements of fantasies like Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events. Orphans? Check. Grim orphanage with heartless administrator? Check. Transport to a mystical realm? Check. Cruel villain accompanied by requisite toady? Check. Objects imbued with magical powers? Check. Mysterious creatures, both friendly and fearful? Check and double-check.

It's true that The Emerald Atlas shares a lot of thematic elements that readers of these iconic books will recognize. But there's also a lot of unique twists that make the story wholly individual. For starters, the siblings are far from being waifs in need of rescue. Instead, they learned early on to rely on themselves and it shows, as they take matters into their own hands whenever possible. The three children have very distinct personalities, from caretaker Kate to analytical Michael to scrappy Emma. These qualities lead each of them into circumstances that rapidly escalate beyond their control, and each is faced with situations that test their bonds of loyalty, forgiveness and love.

The villain, too, has shades of the tried-and-true formula, but with a spin all her own. The Countess is more frightening when she is oozing politeness than many other baddies are at their most evil. (Having listened to the audio version, I can tell you that no one could possibly capture this quality better than the masterful Jim Dale.) Naturally the Countess has her sidekick, the secretary named Mr. Cavendish, whose greasy obsequiousness will make your stomach turn. And of course, these two pop up at the worst possible moments, and refuse to be easily dispatched, even by the children's magical allies.

There are a few elements that feel a bit thin -- the magical objects, in this case books; the children who are destined for greatness; the kindly wizard who looks out for our heroes and heroines at great personal risk. But to be honest I don't think kids, or adults for that matter, who are in the mood for an engrossing fantasy epic will mind all of this terribly much. And if the ground does seem a bit well-trod, there's always Stephens' remarkable pacing to keep you moving along (Stephens worked in television prior to turning to books, and it shows). A huge plus for me is Stephens' sly sense of humor. I especially love the housekeeper, Mrs. Sallow, with her snark-infused commentary. The plot drags a bit toward the end, an instance in which listening to the audio was a huge benefit, as Dale's masterful narration keeps it interesting.

A key point in Atlas is that Kate, Michael and Emma are not really orphans. They believe firmly that their parents will come back for them, and that belief sustains them throughout the course of the novel. At first I worried about how this would all play out, but it becomes clear that their parents did what they had to do for the sake of the children. As an adoptive parent, this plot point provides a perfect opportunity to talk about the difficult choices that birth families make, and why they may elect to place their children in the care of others. Time will tell how Sprout will react to novels like this, with characters who are orphans and struggle with not knowing their birth parents. But I anticipate that this will give us a lot to talk about and to think about, on many levels.

One other thing that occurred to me when listening to The Emerald Atlas -- where are the fantasy epics that feature multicultural storylines? Guess that gives me something to keep looking for.

The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens, audio published by Books on Tape/Random House
Ages 10 up
Sample quote: "His voice and that image -- the tall man silhouetted in the doorway -- would haunt Kate for years, as it was the last time she saw her mother, the last time her family was together. Then the man said something Kate couldn't hear, and it was as if a heavy curtain was drawn around her mind, obliterating the man in the doorway, the light, her mother, everything."
Recommended listening

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