Pan Macmillan, 3 March 2022
Available as: HB(384pp), e, audio
Source: Advance copy/ audiobook subscription
I'm grateful to Black Crow PR for an advance copy of The Atlas Six to consider for review.
Olivie Blake makes clear from the very first page of The Atlas Six that it is set in a rather... different world. The Great Library of Alexandria was, we are told, saved from destruction by a Society which has nurtured it, and its knowledge, in secret ever since, growing wise in the ways of science and of magic. That's a terrific hook for a bookworm like me!
The 21st century that results is one in which magic is freely acknowledged (the opening of the story takes place at a graduation at the New York University of the Magical Arts), but in which the Society still exists, remaining secret and holding greater powers, greater ability, than the generality of humans.
When the story begins, six talented magicians ('medeans') are about to be recruited for a gruelling selection process at the end of which five will be chosen for stardom in the Society - allowing them wealth, power and knowledge. They will live together in a remote mansion, seeking to prove themselves, and after a year, they will select one of their number to be eliminated from the process.
Like candidates in The Apprentice, then, dynamics between the six - Libby, Nico, Reina, Tristan, Callum and Parisa - will be key. More so, perhaps, than ability or accomplishment. We're introduced to each as they are recruited, with Libby and her frenemy Nico intended, I think, to be our main way in: both awesomely powerful in physical magic, Libby insecure and introverted, Nico aristocratic and arrogant.
Chapters then follow the members of the group through, largely, a process of discovery and of alignment - while the year that The Atlas Six chronicles is ostensibly one of study and development this isn't primarily a "magic school" story and the limited descriptions of "classes" are mainly hooks for philosophical and psychological clashes, a method of fleshing out the characters of the six and their likely attitudes to one another. Both we, and the other rivals, are shown strengths and weaknesses, and we see alliances form and dissolve, romantic encounters, and especially, Libby's and Nico's struggles to balance induction into a secret society with their home lives. (Libby has a rather irritating boyfriend, Ezra, who is something of a drag on her; Nico has attachments too).
There is, I would say, a great deal of setting up going on, in fact most of this book feels as though it is grounding the six - together with Atlas himself, who's more or less in charge, and Dalton, his sidekick - and their world. There are a couple of set piece events, but most space is given to these - quite complex - relationships, approached through third person narratives in the voices of the six.
The book has been widely praised, but I think this is where it may lose some and, I have to say, where it largely lost me. It just feels as though there is so much verbal fencing (and interior monologuing about the verbal fencing). Maybe this is because I mostly experienced the story as audio. The audio production is excellent, with appropriate readers for each part, but it does underline just how much talking there is here, and how little actually happens (until the end). The effect for me was rather like listening to a group of students have one of those late night conversation, perhaps assisted by some substance or other, in which the world is put in order and everyone (slightly over) shares about their own lives.
That isn't intended as criticism, I think that some readers will just love this. The book is well written and its characters powerfully and deeply realised; I really sensed by the end that I knew them, and I also knew who I liked (Libby; Reina; Tristan) and who I didn't (Callum; Parisa) and who was most interesting (Nico). But I frequently found myself wishing that things would just move on a bit.
For many, this may not be a problem - we all enjoy different things and get into books in different ways - and possibly, on the page, this would be less of an issue anyway. But for me it did underline that a book can be terrifically written and yet still not suit.
I would point lout that the story ends on a huge cliffhanger - I've tried to write the above without spoilers, and don't want to say much more about the ending, but for the sake of balance I would add that there is something going on here apart from relationship building. Blake springs a surprise which I certainly never saw coming. Oddly, I wonder if, perhaps, that had had been slightly more prefigured than it is, the story would have had more of a hold on me?
For more information about The Atlas Six, see the publisher's webpage here.