The Emerald Atlas

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The Emerald Atlas
Front Cover of "The Emerald Atlas" by John Stephens.jpg
First edition cover
Author John Stephens
Illustrator Grady McFerrin
Cover artist Jon Foster
Grady McFerrin
Country United States
Genre Fantasy
Publisher Alfred A. Knopf
Publication date
5 April 2011
Pages 417
ISBN 978-0-375-86870-2
Followed by The Fire Chronicle

The Emerald Atlas is the first novel of the children's fantasy trilogy The Books of Beginning by John Stephens.[1] The second book is selling now and is called the Fire Chronicle . The book follows orphan siblings Kate, Michael, and Emma who, following a succession of unsuccessful orphanage dwellings, are transferred to the mansion of Dr. Pym, where they find a magical book that grants the power of moving through time. Upon traveling to the past, they happen across a witch who has enslaved the nearby town in an attempt to find the book, known as the Atlas, that the children possess. As the siblings encounter various magical races in an effort to dispel the witch, Kate discovers that she is intrinsically bound to the Atlas, and that the three children are subject to an ancient prophecy.


Kate, Michael, and Emma are siblings who have been shifted from one orphanage to another as each facility’s runners have deemed them unable to be placed. Kate, the eldest, remembers how ten years ago on Christmas Eve, her mother had made her promise to protect her siblings, an in turn promised that one day they would be a family again.

After being rejected by a prospective adoptive mother, the children’s current residence, the Edgar Allan Poe Home for Incorrigible and Hopeless Orphans, decides them to be unplaceable and sends the three off to what is alleged to be another orphanage, situated in Cambridge Falls. However, upon arriving at the mansion, they discover no other children present.

The orphans meet their new head, Dr. Pym, and are then left to explore the house. In the basement, a door magically appears before them, leading to a room that contains an emerald-colored book with nothing written in it. When an old photograph they had been given is touched to a page of the open book, the children are transported back fifteen years, to the date and location that the photo had been taken.

The children observe a witch, titled the Countess, vowing to kill a child every week so long as the enslaved fathers of the children do not find what she seeks. The Countess notices the three orphans and calls upon her grotesque henchmen, designated Screechers for the noise they elicit, to capture them. Kate and Emma escape back the present, but Michael, having not been in physical contact with his sisters, is accidentally left behind.

Kate and Emma do some things in the present, then go back in time. Together, they are held captive. As the witch explains, because logistically there can be only one of anything at the same time, the Emerald Atlas that the children brought with them has disappeared because there is an Atlas from that time that exists.

They escape. They are hunted by wolves. They meet a giant named Gabriel. They run through a subterranean maze. Kate, via a vision, ignores Gabriel’s advice not to wander through the maze and ends up, with Michael following, running into the Dwarf community. They get locked up there, meet a fifteen-years-younger Dr. Pym, go on a quest to find the location of the Emerald Atlas. They find it. Kate gets sucked into a time even further back than the Countess incident where she again meets Dr. Pym. She gets sucked back into the fifteen-years-ago time without the book, and then run into the Countess’s minions. A war begins.

Meanwhile, Emma had turned back to help Gabriel who was fighting off the Countess’s associates. She is stabbed with arrows, but is saved by Gabriel’s community wisewoman, Granny Peet. Once healed, Emma, backed by the wisewoman, sways the townsfolk into war against the Countess. A war begins.

The battle against the witch’s dark forces is ultimately won, but the witch herself remains to be conquered, holding the imprisoned children on a boat. Kate, having been given the power of the Atlas, can travel to any point in time if she has either the book or else a magical person, such as the Countess. Kate decides, so as to not let the children die, to let the witch have the book. The Countess, it turns out, wishes to take the Atlas for her own instead of handing it over to her master, the Dire Magnus. But her master suddenly arrives and strips the witch of her magically suspended ugliness and, while unable to claim the Atlas, informs Kate of her and her sibling’s fate of being heirs to the power of the Books of Beginning, and of how he plans to return and the seize the books once the prophecy comes to pass.

Dr. Pym saves some of the children, but those remaining are stuck on the boat. The ship goes over the waterfall, but just as it does, Kate has all the children link hands, and, utilizing a very recently shot photo, transports them all to safety.

The three orphans return to the present. Kate lingers as the others leave for Christmas dinner, and is shocked to see the Countess, fifteen years older now, waiting for her, desiring the book so she might confront the Dire Magnus. Using the power of the Atlas, Kate drags the Countess into Rhakotis during its conquest by Alexander the Great. In plea, the Countess tells Kate that her mother and father are currently captives of the Dire Magnus, being used as bait to lure the siblings into retrieving the Books of Beginning in exchange for their parents’ release. Rejecting attempts to negotiate cooperation between them, Kate leaves the witch there in the doomed city, traveling back to the mansion at the moment she left.

Critical reception[edit]

Reception was mixed to positive, with critics praising the narrative complexity and fantasy scope, but criticizing how much of the material was derivative of other popular fantasy books, such as Tolkien, Pullman, Rowling, Snicket, and Lewis. Kirkus Reviews wrote positively that the main characters have a "likable voice" and the "elaborate story doesn’t feel overcomplicated." The Guardian gave a lukewarm review, saying that while it is "bright and energetic and has some exciting set pieces," it possesses an "everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach to children's fantasy that it can't quite marshal into overall coherence." Additionally it wrote "children will spot so many bits from other children's fantasies that it could almost be a game," and concluded by saying the novel "threaten[s] magic without ever quite delivering." The New York Times said "Stephens spins a tightly paced, engaging yarn, even if his prose can be lurchingly expository."


  1. ^ Stevens, Dana (8 April 2011). "A New Narnia for the Tween Set". The New York Times. 

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