The Emerald Atlas

The Emerald Atlas

Sorry that my reviews have been slow lately. I’m happy to report that we’ve now moved into our new house and have the internet once again. Hopefully now I can get back on track.

The Emerald Atlas was written by John Stephens and first published in 2011. It is the first part of the epic fantasy series The Books of Beginning and is followed by The Fire Chronicle (2012) and The Black Reckoning (2015). The novel follows three siblings as they discover that they are part of a magical prophecy.

Kate, Michael and Emma P have spent ten years being shepherded from orphanage to orphanage. Although only Kate remembers their parents, she knows that they are not dead. She dimly recalls the night that they were forced to leave them, running away with a mysterious stranger and promising that they will one day return. Now, it is this hope that keeps Kate going. She knows that their situation is only temporary and that her parents will keep their promise.

After proving unadoptable for the umpteenth time, the siblings are sent to live in Cambridge Falls. This dreary town is set deep in the mountains and seems to be entirely populated by miserable adults. Their new orphanage is no better – dark, creepy and run by a horrible housekeeper. To make matters worse, they discover that they are the only children living there and the orphanage’s owner – Dr Stanislaus Pym – is strangely absent.

As the children explore the mansion, they stumble across Dr Pym’s study and make the discovery that he is actually a wizard. Inside, they come across a strange book with blank pages and an emerald green cover. They soon find that the book is magical. By putting a photograph in its pages, they can travel to the time and location where the picture was taken. Using the book, they travel back in time by fifteen years to discover what tragedy befell Cambridge Falls and if there is a way to save the town’s children from their horrible fate.

The Emerald Atlas has many, many good points. First and foremost, it’s a well written and thoughtfully plotted children’s book. The story is very complex for a middle grade/young teen story, containing many entwining plot points, lot of character development and light humor, yet it never feels as though it loses itself. I’ve read a lot of novels that have tried to be too clever and thus utterly alienated their target audience. The Emerald Atlas does not fall into this trap. It’s a more challenging read than the likes of Harry Potter but is still written with children in mind.

The novel keeps up a fast pace throughout, causing the novel to seem a lot shorter than it actually is. The rapid pace really helps the story keep momentum and leads to a number of exciting sequences (the best, in my opinion, being the part where the siblings are pursued through the forest by wolves). Unfortunately, the story occasionally fails to deliver in its promise of action and I really felt that it could have just pushed itself slightly more.

They cross a lake inhabited by some unseen monstrosity which generally leaves them alone. It is said the Countess is raising some terrible creature, yet the monster does not really play much of a role in the climax (also, what was it? Some kind of dragon? Gargoyle? I was never clear). The story is full of witches and wizards and yet there rarely feels as though there is any kind of magic at work in the tale.

However, I adore the way that time travel is addressed within the story, particularly the mechanic of the Atlas. As you may remember from my reviews of TimeRiders, I tend to pick holes in time travel plots as they’re very easy to screw up. Not this time. The time travel in The Emerald Atlas worked perfectly. Stephens sticks to the parallel worlds theory of time travel and avoids tripping himself up by creating paradoxes. The only complication that he is forced to address is how two identical objects from different times can exist in the same place at the same time (hint: they can’t), which is handled without issue (although I thought this plot point was going to be more important than it eventually turned out being).

The characters in the story were all well developed and likable. Kate, Michael and Emma each spoke with their own unique voice and acted believably as siblings – fighting and making mistakes but ultimately caring about each other. I had absolutely no issues with the way that Kate and Michael were presented but Emma did get on my nerves a little. Her thing was that she was angry all the time yet sometimes this seemed inappropriate. Like the time when she almost joined a lynch mob to kill Michael. Or the time when she refused to hide and alerted an enemy sentry to the position of a spy just because she didn’t like being told what to do. I know she’s only young but at times I just wanted to tell her to stop being so stupid. She never seemed to realise that her aggressiveness just kept putting people in danger.

I also loved the secondary cast as they’re all so colourful. Dr Pym is a lovable Dumbledore-esque character and I can’t wait to learn more about him as the series progresses, Gabriel was made of pure awesome (not many people can take out a stag with only a small knife) and the Countess was a suitably sinister villainess. It was disappointing not to discover more about the big baddie – the Dire Magnus – as he hardly appears in this book but his presence was always felt and it made me curious to find out what he’s really like.

So, it’s obvious that this is not a bad book in any regard. I had a few little gripes but nothing that serious. Well, this novel’s biggest problem can only really be seen if you’ve read a lot of children’s fantasy stories (as I have for this blog over the last year and a half). The issue is, there’s nothing really new here. Reading this story is like play fantasy bingo. Although it weaves its own original tale, it does so by taking parts – themes and tone and tropes – from a number of popular novels.

It never feels as though it’s ripping things off to the degree of Charlie Bone or City of Bones but while reading through the novel I could see glimpses of Tolkien, Pullman, Lewis, Rowling and even Snicket. Added to this was the fact that the plot of the novel itself was incredibly clichéd. Three children discover that they are part of an ancient magical prophecy which concerns finding magical objects before an evil dark lord can use them to destroy the world? It’s been done a million times before. For all the story’s good points, its lack of originality made it incredibly forgettable. I hope that, over the next two instalments, it manages to break the mold and find its own voice as it’s distinctly lacking in this right now.

So, to conclude, The Emerald Atlas is a good book and I’m sure that any middle grade or teen fantasy fan will get a kick out of it. It’s fast paced, has a decent cast and some very exciting sequences. Unfortunately, it falls down a little in its lack of originality and being just a bit too conservative in its action scenes. Still, I’ll certainly read the next novel at some point as I’m curious to find out what will happen next.

The Emerald Atlas can be purchased as a Paperback, eBook and Audio Book on

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. forwardsandbookwords
    Jul 18, 2015 @ 11:13:18

    I really enjoyed the Emerald Atlas – it was one of my favorite books in fifth grade – but I read it right when it came out and by the time the sequel was released I had lost interest. If you do continue on with the series I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts! 🙂


    • Kim
      Jul 18, 2015 @ 11:18:23

      I can definitely see why it would have been one of your favourites! I will certainly continue with this series at some point in the future. I’m curious to see what direction it will take next.


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