The Emerald Atlas, by John Stephens, way back in April of 2011...and meant to review it for a Timeslip Tuesday...but it never happened. Now the sequel, The Fire Chronicle is out in the world, and nominated for the Cybils in Middle Grade Sci Fi/Fantasy, and, in as much as I'm one of the first round panelists, I need (and want) to read it!
So I just went back and read The Emerald Atlas for a second time. It's the sort of very complicated, twisty story that is clearer upon rereading, and I found myself enjoying it considerably more than I had the first time around.
It's the story of three children (Kate, Michael, and Emma) taken from their parents when they were little, and sent from orphanage to orphanage. At last they end up as the only children in a mysterious old house by a mysterious lake...a house that just happens to be home to a wizard.
And Kate, Michael and Emma are off on an adventure that takes them back in time fifteen years. There in the past they must:
a. save all the townsfolk from an evil enchantress and her legions of monsters
b. figure out the secrets of the magic book, the Emerald Atlas of the title, that is the key to time travel (the magician knows lots, but isn't telling)
c. stay alive, preferably not in the prison cells of the dwarves
d. have faith in each other, and in their parents--because the hope that someday they'll be a real family again is sometimes all that keeps them going
e. stay alive some more (tricky, what with all the monsters, wolves, breaking dams, and evil witchcraft that fills the story)
It's a busy, complicated story, and this is a drawback--there's a lot of explaining that needs doing, and though this is welcome, it's sometimes a bit jarring when tense moments become opportunities for exposition. And there's a whole lot that isn't explained, which is frustrating to both the children and to me, the reader.
The time travel, however, makes pretty good sense (though I won't go into the details, because it would take too long to explain). In fact, were I to assign points to authors who make nice use of time travel to advance the plot of fantasy quest stories, adding mystery and intellectual complexity, I would give John Stephens quite a good score!
Despite this, I felt the story as a whole was somewhat sprawling and unwieldy--perhaps because my own personal taste doesn't really run to books with lots of rushing around from one dangerous situation to another. However, I am currently having a similar problem with Rick Riordan's latest, The Mark of Athena, which my nine year old read straight through with loving care and which is taking me much longer. So I feel reasonably confident in suggesting that younger readers, with more frisky minds, might enjoy The Emerald Atlas more than I did back in 2011.
This second time though was much more enjoyable for me--knowing, more or less, what was happening freed my mental energies enough so that I could care more for the characters. And now I can look forward to The Fire Chronicle in a cheerfully anticipatory spirit!