Atherton a Brilliant Idea, Tremendously Clever 2007

Patrick Carman’s Atherton is one of those brilliant little ideas that, as soon as you read it, you’ll wish you’d thought of it first. I sure do.Edgar is a special boy with a secret, who lives in a world called Atherton. Atherton is made up of three concentric circles, each at a different elevation than the others, so that the largest is at the bottom, and the smallest is at the top. Edgar lives in the middle elevation, a place called Tabletop, but like everyone in Tabletop, he often wonders about the beautiful Highlands above, and the forboding Flatlands far below. Edgar’s story is set into motion when the Highlands mysteriously begin to sink into Tabletop.A gifted climber, it isn’t long before Edgar scales the cliffs separating the two realms, and makes a fast friend there who lives in the House of Power, where the ruling class resides. As the Highlands continue to descend, a mystery begins to unfold surrounding Edgar’s past and Atherton’s origins, and soon Edgar’s world is filled out with a rich, intriguing cast of characters.The chief conceit of the book is that, like so many fantasy novels, the characters live in this “elsewhere” world called Atherton that could never exist in real life. Or so we want to believe. Carman cleverly takes this preconceived notion we the readers bring into his story and turns it on its head, so that by the end, you’ll realize you’re not reading a fantasy at all, but science fiction. Which is all I should really say, lest I give far too much away. Suffice it to say, the surprises just keep coming right up until the very end, and it’s all tremendously clever.Carman’s control over his craft has progressed nicely. Where his Land of Elyon series could drag a bit in places (particularly in the first book, The Dark Hills Divide), Atherton shows a growing mastery over pacing and flow. The action is never of the high-octane variety, but the developments and mysteries continue to unfold to the extent that you’ll find it very hard to put the book down.He commits the cardinal novel-writing sin of shifting perspectives between characters in the same scene, yet like everything else in the story, it’s handled with such a deft touch, that somehow it works. The book is also filled with some terrific illustrations that go a very long way in bringing the world of Atherton and all that’s within it to life.Atherton: House of Power is first and foremost a great story. It’s built upon issues of social class, along with a gentle environmental message, but all of this serves only to enhance the compelling world that Patrick Carman has created here. It doesn’t disappoint, with a great read and probably the best, most original story I’ve read so far this year.A word of warning though: in anticipation of a forthcoming sequel, it ends on a cliffhanger. A big one.

Patrick Carman