Book review: The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens

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Look out Harry Potter, there’s some new kids on the block and they’re working a very special brand of magic.

Step forward Kate, Michael and Emma, the funny, formidable and fearless family of orphans whose adventures are simply out of this world!

Heralded by critics as the ‘most talked about’ book of the year and much anticipated by thousands of young readers, The Emerald Atlas is the first of a new children’s fantasy series from US television producer John Stephens.

And it won’t disappoint - Stephens’ top-notch time-travel thriller has a quirky mixed bag of heroes and villains, a clever and compelling plotline and graphic action sequences that just cry out for the big screen treatment.

The superbly drawn sibling threesome move about in a secret universe of forbidding forests, wily witches and daredevil dwarves which has echoes of writers from JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis to Philip Pullman and JK Rowling.

A mesmerising and almost tangible sense of magic is the key to the success of The Emerald Atlas, particularly when it meets head-on the extraordinarily down-to-earth trio whose seemingly impossible mission is to save the world.

The three children were whisked away from their loving home and parents when the eldest, Kate, was just four. All she remembers is her mother telling her to take care of her brother and sister before a mysterious man took them to an orphanage 200 miles away.

Ten years, and many other orphanages later, they are leaving the Edgar Allan Poe Home for Hopeless and Incorrigible Orphans to book in at a grim institution in Cambridge Falls run by Dr Stanislaus Pym.

Strangely, they are the only children in the orphanage...in fact, they are the only children in Cambridge Falls, a forbidding town where wolves prowl and giant mountains overshadow a barren and wasted landscape.

When they discover an enchanted atlas in the cellars of the orphanage and turn its pages, an ancient prophesy is set in motion, the ground opens up beneath them and they are hurled 15 years into the past.

There they find the town’s missing children in a clearing in the woods – silent and motionless, they are prisoners of the Countess of Cambridge Falls, one of the wickedest witches you are ever likely to meet and whose rule is enforced by screaming dead creatures called Screechers.

Blonde and radiantly beautiful, the Countess exudes gaiety but beneath that flawless exterior is a siren of such evil that she can disfigure rivals with pitchers of acid and happily poison her own husband.

For Kate, Michael and Emma, the hunt is on to find three books which hold the power to change history and save the world, but first they must encounter bloodthirsty wolves, armies of dwarves and some unexpected allies.

The Emerald Atlas is a rollicking, rollercoaster adventure from start to finish. Visually exciting, tense, atmospheric, fun and frightening in equal measures, the first of the Books of the Beginning trilogy is shaping up to be the last word in fantasy fiction.

(Doubleday, hardback, £12.99)