John Stephens,
Books of Beginning: The Emerald Atlas
(Knopf, 2011)

I brought The Emerald Atlas on the plane with me, and it turned out to be the perfect plane book. At just over 400 pages, it was hefty enough to occupy three hours of my flight, and the adventures of Kate, Michael and Emma were briskly paced and interesting enough to keep me entertained the whole time. If I'd had the sequel, I would have happily read that for the rest of the flight.

Two weeks later, I'm having trouble dredging up details about the characters or the plot. To be fair, I had exactly the same experience with the first Harry Potter book. With both, my initial enjoyment quickly faded to a nagging sensation that I'd read more or less the same story before.

That's not necessarily a terrible thing. Author John Stephens spins a good fantasy filled with nonstop action, a twisty time-travel plot, dwarves, creepy villains, dry humor and the occasional quirky detail. The basic plot involves three siblings who stumble upon a strange book that takes them back to the past and offers them the chance to fix something that went very, very wrong in their town. But they're not the only people who know about the book and, pretty soon, not only their own lives, but also their town and their whole world, are at stake.

Readable? Oh, definitely. The quirks and paradoxes of time travel are handled adroitly and the different settings -- from spooky orphanage to dwarfish caverns -- are fun. However, the characters, including our three protagonists, never become much more than stereotypes, the dialogue is sometimes stiff and there are about twice as many exclamation points as there need to be. The overall feel is more comic book than classic-in-the-making.

The Emerald Atlas doesn't have the complexity of The Golden Compass or the sly paranoia of A Series of Unfortunate Events. Nonetheless, it's a likable children's fantasy book that holds a complete story while setting up the larger story arc of the series. Ask me again in a year and I probably won't remember reading it, though.

book review by
Jennifer Mo

22 October 2011

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