The Emerald Atlas
By John Stephens, Read by Jim Dale
10 CDs, 11 Hours, 38 Minutes
Kate, Michael and Emma are orphans. They weren’t always orphans. Kate can remember the night her parents vanished; she was four, Michael was almost two, and Emma was just a baby. When a shabby man with a serious warning showed up at their home, Kate’s mother kissed her and told her to take care of her brother and sister, and eventually their family would all be together again. She slipped her locket over Kate’s head. The next morning (after a dangerous car chase they slept through) the children woke up in the care of Sister Agatha, of St. Mary’s Home.
Ten years later, there’s still no sign of their parents, and Kate, Michael and Emma have ended up at the Edgar Allan Poe Home for Hopeless and Incorrigible Orphans, their twelfth stop in a long line of placements, each one worse than the last. They may not know their last name, but they do know that their parents are still alive and will eventually come for them. But in the meantime, they still have to deal with bullies, nasty orphanage directors and prospective adoptive parents. When Miss Crumley, their latest tyrant of an orphanage director tells them that they have to make a good impression on a prospective adoptive couple, Emma and Michael just can’t. Mrs. Lovegood and her horrific swan headpiece and attitude toward children are too awful.
In the aftermath of the scene that ensues, Miss Crumley finds the three children the most out-of-the-way institution she can to take them. After a day long train trip to Lake Champlain, they end up in Westport, New York, waiting for a ferry. No one they ask knows anything about Cambridge Falls, the town where their new orphanage is, the orphanage itself or even the island where both are located. There is, however, a derelict dock where they can meet the boat they’re supposed to take to the mysterious island.
When the children are picked up for the ferry ride, they encounter a mysterious fog in the middle of their journey. When the fog finally clears, they arrive on the island. Cambridge Falls is desolate, cold…and empty. And it’s strange; the huge mountains on one side of the island certainly should have been visible from Westport. And the vicious wolves that chase their carriage are unexpected.
When they reach the musty old mansion that is to be their new home, Kate, Michael and Emma learn that not only are they the only children in the orphanage, they’re only children in the whole village. The only other people on the island seem to be Abraham, the man who picked them up at the ferry landing, Miss Sallow, the housekeeper, and the mysterious Dr. Pym, the head of the orphanage.
But the strange island and the drafty old house are well worth exploring, and the children do that. When they find a secret passage down to the basement, how could they resist? And when during their explorations, Kate picks up a book, who could have known that the discovery would change their lives forever? Traveling through time, dealing with monsters, dwarfs, and one evil sorceress…will Kate, Michael and Emma survive? Will they find out who they are?
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The audio version of The Emerald Atlas is read by Jim Dale, famous for his narration of the Harry Potter books. Although I loved the narration, for me his English accent was a little off-putting. Kate, Michael and Emma grew up in orphanages in New York, Boston and Baltimore. Cambridge Falls is in the middle of Lake Champlain, so it’s either New York or Vermont. It’s difficult to believe that any of them would have British accents…and yet they do. I realize that Jim Dale is a master narrator, but I had a hard time remembering that these were supposed to be American kids living in the present time. (Well, at the start of the book, anyway.)
If you get past that though, the narration is wonderful. The characters that live in Cambridge Falls and the other places the children end up (who could very well have British accents, given their magical backgrounds) have rich voices, filled with individuality. The tempo of the reading is wonderful–breathless and hurried when action is taking place, slower at moments of exposition or discovery. And the end definitely leaves you wanting more! Luckily, it looks like there will be two more books, since The Emerald Atlas is one of three missing books in the story. A true trilogy!
I would recommend The Emerald Atlas to fantasy fans. Kate, Michael and Emma are great characters, each a little different, but devoted to each other. (Even if they don’t always show it.) The magic is grand, the villains very evil. The good guys aren’t always aware of their roles, but they learn. And there’s subtle humor throughout, keeping things from getting too dark. Mostly.
If you liked Harry Potter (the books, but especially the audio books) this title is a must. Fans of The Chronicles of Narnia, The Golden Compass and The Dark is Rising Sequence should also enjoy this book and audio book. It’s a long book, with some complicated plot devices, so it’s probably best for readers in 5th to 8th grade. But don’t let that stop you if you’re older or younger! If The Emerald Atlas sounds like something you’d like…try it! And let us know what you think.