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.