Stephens spins a tightly paced, engaging yarn…
The New York Times
The novel's high energy and humor lightens the tone while still honoring the heartfelt quest for family. The ending—with some questions answered and others emerging—paves the way well for the second book in this promising trilogy.
The Washington Post
This promising first volume in debut author Stephens's Books of Beginning trilogy concerns siblings Kate, Michael, and Emma, who, when very young, were taken from their parents to protect them from unspecified forces of darkness. They have since spent 10 years in a series of unpleasant orphanages; the last of these—which, oddly enough, houses no children but themselves—is run by the eccentric Dr. Pym. While exploring their palatial yet decrepit new home tucked away in the Adirondacks, the children discover a magical green book, which transports them into the recent past. There they do battle with a beautiful witch who has terrorized and enslaved the local people in her unsuccessful search for the very book the children possess. Adventures follow, featuring murderous zombielike Screechers, time travel paradoxes, and multiple revelations about Dr. Pym. If Stephens's characterizations sometimes dip into cliché (grumpy, Scottish-ish dwarves; noble/heroic natives; an effete evil assistant), few will mind. This fast-paced, fully imagined fantasy is by turns frightening and funny, and the siblings are well-crafted and empathetic heroes. Highly enjoyable, it should find many readers. Ages 8–12. (Apr.)
From the Publisher
"Rich with wonder and personality, The Emerald Atlas is a terrific read. I wholeheartedly recommend it, and look forward to more." Brandon Mull, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Fablehaven and Beyonders
Starred Review, School Library Journal, June 2011:
"Unfolding magic and secrets deepen the story and build excitement as it reaches its complex and time-bending climax....Echoes of other popular fantasy series, from “Harry Potter” to the “Narnia” books, are easily found, but debut author Stephens has created a new and appealing read that will leave readers looking forward to the next volumes in this projected trilogy."
Publishers Weekly, January 18, 2011:
"This fast-paced, fully imagined fantasy is by turns frightening and funny, and the siblings are well-crafted and empathetic heroes. Highly enjoyable, it should find many readers."
The Wall Street Journal, April 2, 2011:
"[A] great story is all in the telling, and in 'The Emerald Atlas' the telling is superb...First-time novelist John Stephens has created a vicarious adventure for children ages 9-15—the first in a trilogy—filled with unexpected twists and marvelously distinct and vivid characters."
BookPage, April 2, 2011:
"With magic, humor and unforgettable characters, John Stephens’ remarkable debut novel follows Kate, Michael and Emma as they attempt to outwit the Countess, rescue the children and maybe even save the world in the process. Unanswered questions and two more books to locate ensure a sequel and more robust adventures ahead."
Realms of Fantasy, April 2011:
“Ambitious, entertaining, magical, and whimsical, this marks a strong beginning to a new trilogy, invoking just a little Harry Potter and Series of Unfortunate Events along the way.”
Booklist, March 15, 2011:
“Fast-paced and engaging, with plenty of action, humor, and secrets propelling the plot. . . . Themes of family and responsibility . . . will easily resonate with young readers.”
Kirkus, March 15, 2011:
“Each character has such a likable voice that the elaborate story doesn’t feel overcomplicated. . . . The only gripe readers might initially have is with its length, but by the end, they’ll immediately wish it was longer.”
Library Media Connection, May / June 2011:
“A rollicking fantasy filled with shiver-inspiring evil creatures and quiet heroes. The feisty sisters and the intellectual brother will win the hearts of readers of all ages.”
CrackingTheCover.com, April 5, 2011:
"“Creativity and wit abound in 'The Emerald Atlas.' Author John Stephens could have easily fallen into the trap of building on someone else’s ideas. But he doesn’t.
Stephens doesn’t write down to his readers. Rather he offers a sophisticated narrative that will appeal to children and adults alike. It’s clear he had fun writing and that 'The Emerald Atlas' was painstakingly thought out.”
School Library Journal
Gr 4–8—Kate, 14, 12-year-old Michael, and 11-year-old Emma have lived in 12 different orphanages during the decade since their parents' mysterious disappearance. Kate tries to care for her brother and sister as she promised her mother, but this gets harder when they are sent to a new orphanage directed by Dr. Stanislaus Pym and find that they are the only children in his remote mansion. When they explore the home, they discover a magical door that reveals a hidden study, where they find a magic book that allows them to travel through time. The action escalates as the girls try to rescue Michael, who is stranded in the past, and develops after the children learn the history of the Atlas and its connection to their lives. As they try to find the book in the past, they meet brash and humorous dwarves, a powerful warrior, and a younger Dr. Pym, as well as an evil witch who is also seeking the Atlas. Unfolding magic and secrets deepen the story and build excitement as it reaches its complex and time-bending climax. The siblings have a realistic and appealing relationship, including rivalry and bickering that hides their underlying deep loyalty to one another. Echoes of other popular fantasy series, from "Harry Potter" to the "Narnia" books, are easily found, but debut author Stephens has created a new and appealing read that will leave readers looking forward to the next volumes in this projected trilogy.—Beth L. Meister, Milwaukee Jewish Day School, WI
Since being inexplicably plucked from their parents' home, three children—Kate, Michael and Emma, who all ferociously resist the label "orphan"—have trickled through a long line of decent to atrocious orphanages. Their adventures truly begin when they're shipped to a crumbling mansion in a childless town somewhere near Lake Champlain. A mysterious book hidden in the home's dilapidated bowels whisks them to the same spot 15 years earlier, where a glamorous witch rules. The reason for the absence of children gruesomely reveals itself, and the trio determines to help with no initial clue to their own prophetic importance.That they have a larger role to play becomes clearer as they realize they have a special relationship with the magic book, the significance of which is revealed bit by bit. In this mystical world of Children with Destiny, readers might cringe at potential similarity to a certain young wizard, but this is entirely different.Each character has such a likable voice that the elaborate story doesn't feel overcomplicated, and though the third-person-omniscient narration focuses on Kate's thoughts, brief forays into the perspectives of her siblings hint that the next two books might focus on them. Supporting characters from a heroic Native American to some very funny dwarves further enliven things. The only gripe readers might initially have is with its length, but by the end, they'll immediately wish it was longer. (Fantasy. 10-14)
Read an Excerpt
The girl was shaken awake. Her mother was leaning over her.
"Kate"—her voice was low and urgent—"listen very closely. I need you to do something for me. I need you to keep your brother and sister safe. Do you understand? I need you to keep Michael and Emma safe."
"What . . ."
"There isn't time to explain. Promise me you'll look after them."
"Oh, Kate, please! Just promise me!"
"I . . . I promise."
It was Christmas Eve. Snow had been falling all day. As the oldest, Kate had been allowed to stay up later than her brother and sister. That meant that long after the voices of the carolers had faded away, she'd sat with her parents beside the fire, sipping hot chocolate as they exchanged presents—the children would receive theirs in the morning—and feeling very adult for her four years. Her mother gave her father a small, thick book, very worn and old, that seemed to please him greatly, and he in turn gave her a locket on a gold chain. Inside the locket was a tiny picture of the children—Kate, two-year-old Michael, and baby Emma. Then, finally, it was up to bed, and Kate lay there in the darkness, warm and happy under her blankets, wondering how she would ever fall asleep, and it seemed the very next moment she was being shaken awake.
The door to her room was open and, in the light from the hall, she watched as her mother reached back and unclasped the locket. She bent forward and slid her hands underneath Kate, fastening it around her neck. The girl felt the soft brush of her mother's hair, smelled the gingerbread she'd been cooking that afternoon, and then something wet struck her cheek and she realized her mother was crying.
"Remember your father and I love you very much. And we will all be together again. I promise."
The girl's heart was hammering in her chest, and she had opened her mouth to ask what was happening when a man appeared in the doorway. The light was behind him, so Kate couldn't see his face, but he was tall and thin and wearing a long overcoat and what looked like a very rumpled hat.
"It's time," he said.
His voice and that image—the tall man silhouetted in the doorway—would haunt Kate for years, as it was the last time she saw her mother, the last time her family was together. Then the man said something Kate couldn't hear, and it was as if a heavy curtain was drawn around her mind, obliterating the man in the doorway, the light, her mother, everything.
The woman gathered up the sleeping child, wrapping the blankets around her, and followed the man down the stairs, past the living room where the fire still burned, and out into the cold and darkness.
Had she been awake, the girl would've seen her father standing in the snow beside an old black car, her brother and infant sister swaddled in blankets and asleep in his arms. The tall man opened the back door, and the children's father laid his charges on the seat; then he turned, took Kate from the woman, and laid her beside her brother and sister. The tall man closed the door with a soft thunk.
"You're sure?" the woman said. "You're sure this is the only way?"
The tall man had moved into the glow of a streetlamp and was clearly visible for the first time. To a casual passerby, his appearance would not have inspired much confidence. His overcoat was patched in spots and frayed at the cuffs, he wore an old tweed suit that was missing a button, his white shirt was stained with ink and tobacco, and his tie—this was perhaps the strangest of all—was knotted not once but twice, as if he'd forgotten whether he'd tied it and, rather than glancing down to check, had simply tied it again for good measure. His white hair poked out from beneath his hat, and his eyebrows rose from his forehead like great snowy horns, curling over a pair of bent and patched tortoiseshell glasses. All in all, he looked like someone who had gotten dressed in the midst of a whirlwind and, thinking he still looked too presentable, had thrown himself down a flight of stairs.
It was when you looked in his eyes that everything changed.
Reflecting no light save their own, they shone brightly in the snow-muffled night, and there was in them a look of such uncommon energy and kindness and understanding that you forgot entirely about the tobacco and ink stains on his shirt and the patches on his glasses and that his tie was knotted twice over. You looked in them and knew that you were in the presence of true wisdom.
"My friends, we have always known this day would come."
"But what changed?" the children's father demanded. "There's been nothing since Cambridge Falls! That was five years ago! Something must've happened!"
The old man sighed. "Earlier this evening, I went to see Devon McClay."
"He's not . . . he can't be . . ."
"I'm afraid so. And while it is impossible to know what he told them before he died, we must assume the worst. We must assume he told them about the children."
For a long moment, no one spoke. The woman had begun crying freely.
"I told Kate we'd all be together again. I lied to her."
"He won't stop till he finds them! They'll never be safe!"
"You're right," the old man said quietly. "He will never stop."
Whatever "he" they were referring to seemed to require no explanation.
"But there is a way. The one we have always known. The children must be allowed to grow up. To fulfill their destiny—" He stopped himself.
The man and woman turned. At the end of the block, three dark figures, in long black overcoats, stood watching them. The street became very still; even the snowflakes seemed to hover in midair.
"They are here," the old man said. "They will follow the children. You must disappear. I will find you."
Before the couple could respond, the old man had opened the door and slid across to the wheel. The three figures were moving forward. The man and woman backed toward the house as the engine woke with a rumbling cough. For a moment, the wheels spun uselessly in the snow; then something caught, and the car skidded away. The figures were running now, passing the man and woman without so much as turning their heads, focused solely on the car that was slipping and sliding down the snowy street.
The white-haired man drove with both hands tight on the wheel. Luckily, it was late, and with the snow and it being Christmas Eve, there was no traffic to slow him down. But as fast as the man drove, the dark figures drew closer. They ran with an eerie, silent grace; every stride covered a dozen yards, the black wings of their overcoats billowing out behind them. Rounding a corner, the car bounced off a parked van, and two of the figures leapt into the air, grabbing on to the town houses that lined the street. The man glanced in the mirror and saw his pursuers scrambling along the faces of the houses like gargoyles that had broken free.
His eyes showed no surprise, but he pressed the accelerator to the floor.
The car shot across a square, barreling past a midnight crowd emerging from a church. He had driven into the old part of the city, and the car was bumping along cobblestone streets. In the backseat, the children slept on. One of the figures launched itself off the side of a brownstone, landing atop the car with a shuddering crash. A moment later, a pale hand punched down through the roof and began peeling away the metal shell. A second attacker seized the back of the car and dug its heels into the street, tearing grooves through the century-old stones.
"A little further," the man murmured, "just a little further."
They entered a park, white with snow and utterly empty, the car skating across the frozen ground. Just ahead, he could see the dark swath of the river. And then everything seemed to happen at once: the old man gunned the engine, the last figure attached itself to the door, the roof was ripped open so the night air poured in; perhaps the only thing that didn't change was the children, who slept through it all, oblivious. Then the car flew off a small rise and was launched out over the river.
It never struck the water. At the last possible moment, it simply vanished, leaving behind three dark shapes that splashed, thrashing, into the river.
A second later and two hundred miles to the north, the
car, without a mark on it, pulled up in front of a large gray stone building. Its arrival had clearly been expected, for a short woman in dark robes came sweeping down the steps to meet it.
Together, she and the old man gathered up the children and carried them inside. They climbed to the top floor, then proceeded down a long corridor decorated with garlands and tinsel. They passed room after room of sleeping children. They turned in at the last doorway. The room was empty save for two beds and a crib.
The nun—the short woman's name was Sister Agatha—carried the boy and infant girl. She laid the boy in a bed and his young sister in the crib. Neither stirred. The old man placed Kate in the other bed. He drew the quilt up around her chin.
"Poor dears," Sister Agatha said.
"Yes. And so much depends on them."
"You believe they'll be safe here?"
"As safe as they can be. He will hunt for them. That is certain. But the only people alive who know that they are here are you and I."
"What am I to call them? They'll need a new surname."
"How about"—the old man thought for a moment—"P."
"What about the oldest girl? She'll remember her real name."
"I will see she doesn't."
"Hard to believe it's really happening, hard to believe . . ." She looked up at her companion. "Will you stay for a while? I lit a fire downstairs, and I still have some of the monks' ale. It is Christmas, after all."
"Very tempting. Unfortunately, I must check on the children's parents."
Sighing, "Ah me, so it really has begun . . . ," the woman passed into the hall.
The old man followed her to the door, then paused to look back at the sleeping children. He raised his hand as if in blessing, murmured, "Till we meet again," and walked out.
The three children slept on, unaware of the new world that awaited them when they awoke.