Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Emerald Atlas

Book One: The Books of Beginning
By John Stephens
$17.99, ages 8-12, 432 pages

Three orphans travel back in time through the pages of an atlas to guard secrets that brought the world into being in the most talked-about children's novel of the year.

In this first book in a trilogy, the writer for the TV series Gilmore Girls crafts a spirited, page-turning fantasy that's at times derivative of C.S. Lewis's Narnia books, but sets itself apart with it own cleverly realized sequences of time travel.

Stephens deftly manages the consequences of going back in time and changing the course of history with a deceivingly simple plot that has the orphans rescuing a village from a terrible past and, at least for now, guarding the world from a witch.

While wandering the eerie rooms of their new orphanage, siblings Kate, Michael and Emma discover an ancient book of wizardry that transports them 15 years into the past where a witch is ransoming the town's children for the very book that sent them there.

The story begins late at night on a snowy Christmas Eve a decade before the children find the book, as an old man whisks Kate, then 4, Michael, 2, and Emma, still a baby, away from their tearful parents just as dark forces are about to close in on the children.

As the three sleep in the backseat, the man's car barrels into the night and three dark figures in black-winged overcoats launch after them. Just as one of the phantoms begins to peel off the top of the car, the old man guns the engine and the car launches over the river and vanishes.

A second later the car pulls up, without a scratch on it, to the first of a dozen orphanages that the children are shuttled to over the next decade, each worse than the one before. Though the children never hear from their parents or other relations, they are determined that their parents are alive and will come back for them.

Kate, now 14, is the only one who remembers anything about that night. Her mother made her promise to keep Michael and Emma safe, and said that one day they'd be together again. Yet Kate struggles with feelings of being abandoned and, though pretty, shows the strain of watching over her siblings.

Michael and Emma too carry scars. Michael, now 12, is enamored by a book his father left him, The Dwarf Omnibus, and the idea that dwarf parents never leave their children, while Emma, 11, having no recollections of being cared for and loved by parents, is feisty and lives at the furthest reaches of her emotions.

One day, the head of a new orphanage, a wizard named Dr. Stanislaus Pym, sends for the children. They are put on a train for Westport, told to wait for a boat at the docks there, then as a bank of fog obscures the water, a boat appears and takes them to Cambridge Falls, a barren dismal place that no one outside of it has ever heard of.

Craggy peaks rise up where none were before, and as a horse-drawn carriage takes the children to the orphanage, they pass people hurrying by with their heads down, but not one child. They hear wolves howling as night approaches and see falls that just 12 years before were contained by a dam.

The three are told that they are the only children at Pym's orphanage, a strange, bedeviled place, and as they wander about the mansion, Kate, Michael and Emma pass a stark room filled with old metal bed frames and iron bars on the windows, then stumble into an underground study hidden by enchantments.

Inside the study, the children find a book with an emerald cover in which every page is blank, but as they place a picture on a page, the floor disappears under their feet and they're swept back in time to where the picture was taken.

The place in the picture is still Cambridge Falls, but it's 15 years earlier and it's under siege. A century-old witch disguised as a teenage countess has taken the town's children hostage and is threatening to drop them off a cliff if their parents don't find a magical book said to be buried in a secret vault in the mountains.

The atlas is just one of The Books of Beginning, three great books of secrets written by a counsel of wizards 2,000 years ago, as the age of humans approached and their time was ending, in order to preserve the truths of the universe.

The wizards knew that if the books got in the wrong hands, they could be used to destroy the world, so they built in protections (pages are blank) and established an order of guardians to protect them, among them Dr. Pym. Yet, the countess is calculating and her master is said to be even more treacherous.

Already, the countess has terrorized the town with the help of her rat-toothed secretary Cavendish and a horde of demon warriors, which the children of Cambridge Falls call, "Screechers" -- men who traded their souls for power and eternal life, and cry out when attacking, like souls being torn apart.

What ensues is a whirlwind adventure, as the children discover an ancient prophecy, and with the help of Dr. Pym, a lion-hearted giant and a band of dwarfs, attempt to recover the Emerald Atlas from under a dead city in the mountains of Cambridge Falls, and rescue the town's children from the witch.

But it won't be easy. Before the last heart-pounding page, the children must escape from a pack of starving wolves, battle yellow-eyed Screechers in a mining tunnel, outsmart a drunken dwarf king, take on ancient bat-like beasts with razor-sharp claws and try to save the kidnapped children from a watery death.

This is a book that grew on me slowly, but then had me hooked, and though it is at times formulaic, it has all the makings of book destined for the big screen, explaining in part why it was the buzz of last week's Bologna Children's Book Fair.

At first, I longed for more description, particularly when the children meet up with the giant, and more originality -- during their first leap into the past, Michael betrays his siblings to the witch as Edmund did in Narnia.

But as the children went back and forth in time, I was fascinated by how skillfully Stephens wove together the past and future, and accounted for the atlas's whereabouts when events altered where it was, and I found myself impressed by Stephens generosity as a storyteller.

Several times the story had reached a cliff-hanging moment and could have been cut off to be tied up in the next book, yet Stephens charged ahead, giving readers just the little bit more they needed.

I can only wonder what lies ahead and hope that it's as packed with action as this one.

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