Lit in the Time of Coronavirus: Stephens and Stephens

Hello! I hope you are all healthy and safe. I’m reviewing two books this time, both part of the same series. I won’t spoil anything, though, so don’t worry.

The Emerald Atlas, by John Stephens

waterfall gifs | WiffleGif

“‘You ain’t from around here,’ the boy said. He kept his voice low, and the look on his face was one Kate recognized. She’d seen it on children who after years in orphanages had decided no one was ever going to adopt them. The boy had no hope. ‘My name’s Kate,’ she said, speaking in the same near-whisper as the boy. ‘This is my brother and sister, Michael and Emma. What’s your name?’ ‘Stephen McClattery. Where’re you from?’ ‘The future,’ Michael said. ‘Probably about fifteen years. Plus or minus.’ ‘Michael’s our leader,’ Emma said brightly. ‘So if we all die, it’s his fault.’”

I wrote about the second book in this “Books of Beginning” trilogy a few weeks ago. Now I’m writing about the first one.

This book starts with three siblings in an orphanage. The siblings are named Kate, Michael, and Emma, and the orphanage’s name is irrelevant. What is relevant is that the kids’ parents left them for some mysterious reason, but that they promised they would return. So the kids refuse to be adopted, and wind up being sent to another orphanage with a relevant name: Cambridge Falls.

There, they find the book that takes them through time and into danger.

So now that the dramatic summary is out of the way, let’s talk about the actual story. I first read this book as a kid and loved it. It had magical creatures and funny characters and adventure and so on.

Coming back to it was an interesting experience. I noticed how many times characters jumped from one mountain-ledge to another and were miraculously saved from falling to their deaths by massive gusts of wind that somehow pushed them to safety.

I also noticed how well put-together the themes were. The protagonists were orphans, and they encountered a group of orphans when they traveled to the past. They met creatures whose life-values gave insight into how the kids were affected by their orphan-ness. They also encountered people who seemed to represent what life could be like if the kids weren’t orphans. Also, all of their struggles seemed to be testing their values of family.

Basically, the story seemed to have a crux that everything else came out of—the adventures, the magical creatures, and the characters. Everything reflected an aspect of the idea of family.

So even though the story may have had miraculous gusts of wind, it also had a thematic unity that made it surprisingly rewarding to read.

The Black Reckoning, by John Stephens

Funny Death GIF | Gfycat

“‘When I first got here, I thought this place was a hell. You’re the one who told me it could be a paradise. It turns out we were both right. It could be either. It depends on who you are, because the world of the dead shouldn’t just be a place where you wait around like some kind of houseplant. It should matter what you did when you were alive, and if you spent your life only living for yourself, then yeah, maybe this should be a hell. But if you ever forgot yourself enough to love another person, then you should be able to remember that.’”

This is the third book in that “Books of Beginning” trilogy. If you’re someone who wants to make sure the entire trilogy is good before you start in on it, this review may be helpful.

In this book, Emma journeys into the world of the dead to find the third Book of Beginning, while Kate and Michael and their other friends stay in the world of the living and try to win a war against evil forces.

This book was well-written, but it didn’t feel very satisfying. I didn’t come to care more about the story as the book went on, and then I found the author getting rid of reasons I should care about the story without replacing them with reasons to care more.

For instance, take character deaths. If you’re going to kill a character, you want to get readers to care about that character beforehand so the death is impactful. Then you have to make sure the death doesn’t get readers to stop caring about the remaining characters. Ideally, you’d want to use the death to get readers even more invested in the remaining characters.

That didn’t really happen in this book, so after that aforementioned character died, it felt like the book was running out of reasons for you to care.

This may say something about the book in general. What made that original character sympathetic? Probably the fact that this character was the only one who actually had some trouble achieving goals. Instead of being helped along by miraculously-convenient gusts of wind, this character had to be resourceful in order to survive. As a result, you felt like this character’s battles could go either way.

Meanwhile, the other characters in the book didn’t seem to have to struggle as much. It felt like they would get where they needed no matter what happened. After the aforementioned character died, nothing was really at stake in terms of the plot.

What about in terms of the characters’ wants? I never really found out. Most of the characters wanted things that seemed obvious and expected. If one sibling got separated from another sibling, the other siblings wanted that sibling back, and that was all you really found out about it. This could apply to any sibling group, but in real life, siblings in this type of situation would have their unique takes on why they want their missing sibling back. Maybe they realize something new about that sibling that they never acknowledged earlier which makes them miss that sibling more. In fiction, learning about those types of realizations would make a reader understand the character more and be able to connect with him/her better.

That didn’t seem to happen much in this book. In other words, the characters didn’t seem to be feeling things and trying to make sense of things nearly as much as they probably should have. As a result, they didn’t seem truly engaged by the events of the story. Since the characters weren’t engaged, I couldn’t really be, either.

The only exception was that one resourceful character, who was engaged and who grew in engagement as the story went on as you learned more about this character’s backstory. If Stephens had made every character be just as engaged as that character, this story probably would have been much more satisfying.

So. Is this series worth it? Based on the trilogy as a whole, I would say maybe. It won’t change your life, but it does have its moments. Stephens is sometimes good at themes, and he’s sometimes good at characters, and he’s sometimes good at plots. Other times, he’s not.

Just based on the third book alone, I would say that it’s not worth it. But you might think differently. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Until next week!


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