Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Off the map

I finished The Emerald Atlas last week and already it has pretty much faded into that hazy part of my brain where the non-memorable reads go. This is the first book in a projected trilogy, The Books of Beginning, and is written by John Stephens, who is -- as many have said before me (in a "cue the movie script" way) -- a writer for television (Gilmore Girls and The O.C. -- I've seen an episode or two of the former, and none of the latter). The book has a lot of buzz and when Listening Library went to Jim Dale for the audiobook, I thought it must be worth hearing.

Four-year-old Kate is the only one who was old enough to remember the Christmas Eve night she and her brother and sister were spirited away from their parents and lost their last name. For ten years, Kate, Michael and Emma P. have bounced from orphanage to orphanage -- each one worse than the previous. The last, the Edgar Allan Poe Home for Hopeless and Incorrigible Orphans, seems to be the end of the line. When they spoil their last chance at adoption by claiming to not be orphans, the manageress of the E.A. Poe Home finds an orphanage run by Dr. Stanislaus Pym of Cambridge Falls and quickly ships them to Vermont. The siblings discover that they are the only residents and pretty much have the run of the place.

Here's where the haze sets is. They find a book and discover that they can travel to the place and time of any photograph placed into the book when they end up in a nearly deserted village about 15 years earlier. The place is still Cambridge Falls, but it's a Cambridge Falls ruled by a terrifying, ageless Countess -- who is holding the town's children hostage so the men will diligently search for a long-buried book. The Countess has no delicate sensibilities when it comes to killing children.

The book the Countess seeks is -- of course -- the one the children have found 15 years later, and over the course of the story we learn that Kate has the powerful ability to make it do its thing: time travel. Along the way, bookish Michael meets the creatures of his dreams -- a clan of quarrelsome dwarfs, feisty Emma finds a warrior father figure, and Kate catches a glimpse of her long-lost mother (before she was born). Chases, battles, and daring rescues ensure, much (much!) is explained and the stage is set for the next book (Book).

I found all the time travel and the boatload of exposition to be both a drag on the momentum of the story and overly confusing. The author throws pretty much everything into the story, and borrows copiously from those who have gone before him: Narnia, Oz, Hogwarts and its wizarding world, Middle Earth. The different influences lend an air of incoherence to the whole thing, and I just couldn't get very excited about the three children and their adventures. Each seemed like a stereotype and nothing else.

Jim Dale does his manful best with the material. He's such a good reader (and it's been a long time since I've heard him!) -- setting a beautiful pace, filling the story with subtle emotions (nobody does tender moments like him), and imparting a general sense of excitement at the story's developments. And then there are the characters. Yes. Plenty of opportunities for Dale to shine: the professorial Dr. Pym, his cranky housekeeper, the imperious Russian Countess, her squealing and hissing secretary, elderly and loyal Abraham (Pym's handyman), stalwart and heroic Gabriel (Emma's father figure), and those dwarfs.

It is with the Scots-accented dwarfs (don't ask how they found themselves in Vermont) that Dale shows all his trademark goofiness. There's the righteous Wallace (who should be king) and his overblown brother (who is king), plus a few warriors to keep things lively. Except for the fact that the dwarf-ish sections of the story were milked for all they had (and then some), Dale's rollicking humor makes these intervals mostly hilarious.

The siblings at the center of the story are nicely portrayed as well, it's just that they are the straight men of this story and of Dale's performance. (In much the same way that Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson are the center around which all those other actors deliciously revolve.)

So, Dale reads about the adventures of three American children in his English accent. It doesn't bother me, but I will admit I had trouble remembering the story takes place in Vermont. I'm not sure it really matters where this story occurs, but it is an interesting narrative choice. To my few, but loyal, readers ... does this matter to you?

Despite my lack of enthusiasm, The Emerald Atlas will no doubt appeal to a large number of readers. (Crikey! I just checked the holds and the audiobook has 34 in the queue!) It's got all the elements of a fun fantasy read for those who devour same. And the audiobook is great road trip material, for all but the most sensitive of listeners. Not ear-time ill-spent, it's just not amongst the great ones.

[The photograph of the (time-traveling) Tardis was taken by Paul Hayes and was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Emerald Atlas (The Books of Beginning, Book 1) by John Stephens
Narrated by Jim Dale
Listening Library, 2011. 11:38

1 comment:

proseandkahn said...

Interesting question! I listened to it in May and just checked my post on it. I think I liked it because it was Dale, but gave it a good review. I really had to think hard about the accent. I dimly recollect noticing it, but failed to write about it, so I must have forgiven it by the end of the book.

I wonder why it didn't bother me because I remember being really bothered by the British narrator of the Gatekeeper book that had the American twins. I didn't notice the accent with the second installment, which featured a South American native teen. Hm.

I also liked the point you made about all the tropes. You're right. I guess that just goes to show how we can't always be objective in our listening/ reading.