A magical destiny awaits a 12-year-old daydreamer, but he has real-life troubles to contend with first.
Atlas Forman’s reality is pretty rough right now: his older brother, Charlie, just died, his parents aren’t taking it well, he’s got a well-earned reputation as a daydreamer, and the school bully has it in for him. What’s more, he has started seeing things—glowing trees, red lights, even fairies. He cooks up a scheme with his best friend to put the bully in his place, but it goes badly awry and simultaneously reveals the source of Atlas’ strange vision: his destiny is tied to the magical world of Celesteria. While much of middle-grade fantasy treats the real world as a frame to be escaped as quickly as possible so the characters can revel in the fantasy world, Holser (Fragment, 2013, etc.) instead keeps his focus on Atlas’ real life in a Kentucky mining town; his journey to Celesteria is almost incidental. There, and from visiting fairies, he learns about Celesteria’s complex cosmology. But these details are thrown at Atlas—and the reader—too quickly to fully disentangle, and few of them end up mattering to the larger story. It’s a relief when Atlas returns to the richer, more fully realized world of his school and friends—and even the bully. Atlas’ entanglement with Big Harold is based on age-old archetypes but is authentic and fully realized. While generally fast-paced and enjoyable, the book’s first-person narrative slips in and out of a voice and point of view appropriate for a 12-year-old boy. Atlas describes his mother like this: “Her bobbed auburn hair accented her pale slender neck. Through the tears, her glistening blue eyes kept a quiet strength, matched by the physical strength of a petite frame that had competed in many a triathlon over the years.” While a kid his age may have that vocabulary, it’s unlikely a preteen has ever seen his mother through those eyes.
Fantasy elements may hook readers, but the characters will land them.