Aw yeah. Here it comes. It’s the book that had the ad that breathed down my neck for more than a week. The book that everyone and their mother swore they wouldn’t read because of said ad. But y’know, I read the book before any of this happened and gosh darn it, I liked it. And now that the horrid ad is gone, I feel comfortable reviewing it. Judge for yourself then.
Poor, "Atherton". Poor, baby. If it’s not one thing with you then it’s another. If the CD-ROM included with your book doesn’t have a glitch in it then you’re berated in Publisher’s Weekly for carrying half a cover. And on top of all that, your publisher’s marketing department created an ad for you on the School Library Journal website that drew ire, fire, and fury for its insidious nature. Poor, "Atherton". It’s okay, honey, I still love you. The fact of the matter is, no matter what the flaws with your packaging and advertising may be, your book is incredibly fun. An exciting adventure with enough sci-fi drippings and fabulous plotting to overcome whatever string of bad luck you may collect later. So while I may have suffered personally from the crazy ad campaign of "Atherton", I’ll tell you here and now that I liked liked liked this book. It’s going to be hugely popular with any kid who reads it and you can bet that I’ll be recommending it every chance that I get.
As far as Edgar is concerned, the world of Atherton has always been as it is now. On his level, people tend to the fig trees and raise sheep and rabbits. One a level above his (in the "Highlands" as they’re called) are people there live a life of ease and luxury and control the flow of water that trickles down the sheer cliffs that separate his world from theirs. And on the lowest level, far below another cliff, is a barren wasteland where no one has ever gone and where no one even lives. This is the world as the boy, Edgar, has always known it and he doesn’t think to question his existence until the day he climbs a cliff, finds a book, and discovers that there are secrets to this world that he never could have suspected. What’s more, it looks like the different levels of Atherton are slowly sinking into one another. For good or for ill, Atherton is changing, and life is about to never be the same again.
I didn’t actually intend to like this book. Patrick Carman’s previous work on his "Elyon" series had potential but ended up a rather didactic fantasy series that never really distinguished itself from the pack. It just felt like pseudo-Christianity in the style of C.S. Lewis. So for all that people told me that "Atherton" was a fun book, I could never really believe it. Let that be a lesson to you, my children. Whatever problems I might have had with the "Elyon" books, those foibles were completely and utterly absent from Carman’s latest. The premise that there is a world that exists in layers with the rich at the top and the poor at the bottom crops up in children’s literature from time to time (I’m thinking of Zilpha Keatley Snyder’s, "Below the Root" series as one such example) and works particularly well here. And though he may not have realized it, Carman’s book fits well into a variety of different literary tropes without really replicating a previous idea.
When I think of boys scaling rocky cliffs in children’s literature, the first image that comes to mind is that old fairy tale about the princess at the top of a crystal mountain and the men who tried to reach her. Now the princess has been replaced by knowledge and the human desire to reach for it. The fact that his main character cannot read was a bit of a risk on the author’s part. Normally a writer will somehow muck with his setting so that the protagonist is the ONLY person who is able to read. You know what I’m talking about. I’m sure you’ve all read stories where a kindly grandmotherly/grandfatherly character teaches a kid to read and that kid, in turn, has an advantage over their fellows. So for Carman to make Edgar illiterate, that’s huge. It also gives the boy just the incentive he needs to scale the massive cliffs of his world.
The pacing of this book is also consistently impressive. It doles out information and action in equal amounts, never giving too much time to one aspect or another. Nine times out of ten, when a kid is in a children’s book looking for answers only to be put off and told just a little information at a time, that bugs me. It didn’t bug me with "Atherton" though. Carman knows just how to consistently satisfy a child reader’s need for both story and suspense without ever giving too much away or frustrating the reader in the process. Secrets abound here, but there are enough left over at the story’s end to make you want to read the sequel pronto. If I’m going to be honest with you, I’m a little miffed that I have to wait a year or two for Book Two to come out. I wish I could write the last sentence of the book here, as I think it’s one of the cleverest endings I’ve seen in a series book in a while, but I won’t spoil it for you.