CONFIRMED: The Atlas Six has a firm place in the cannon of dark academia. This book’s strengths lie in its characters, meticulously and thoroughly written and spinning themselves into complex webs of relationships. I knew little going in, so one thing surprised me most: it’s an adult-feeling book about adults. It’s most interested in people and their motivations. Blake gives people powers (the fantasy part) just to see what would happen to their heads. Then she just…plays it out. The result is subtly spectacular. The Atlas Six is not, per se, about a found family, nor is it about a contrived competition. It’s certainly not particularly worried about plot, which feels a little like an afterthought. The Atlas Six is about people and their minds.
… The Alexandrian Society, caretakers of lost knowledge from the greatest civilizations of antiquity, are the foremost secret society of magical academicians in the world. Those who earn a place among the Alexandrians will secure a life of wealth, power, and prestige beyond their wildest dreams, and each decade, only the six most uniquely talented magicians are selected to be considered for initiation.
… Enter the latest round of six: Libby Rhodes and Nico de Varona, unwilling halves of an unfathomable whole, who exert uncanny control over every element of physicality. Reina Mori, a naturalist, who can intuit the language of life itself. Parisa Kamali, a telepath who can traverse the depths of the subconscious, navigating worlds inside the human mind. Callum Nova, an empath easily mistaken for a manipulative illusionist, who can influence the intimate workings of a person’s inner self. Finally, there is Tristan Caine, who can see through illusions to a new structure of reality—an ability so rare that neither he nor his peers can fully grasp its implications.
… When the candidates are recruited by the mysterious Atlas Blakely, they are told they will have one year to qualify for initiation, during which time they will be permitted preliminary access to the Society’s archives and judged based on their contributions to various subjects of impossibility: time and space, luck and thought, life and death. Five, they are told, will be initiated. One will be eliminated. The six potential initiates will fight to survive the next year of their lives, and if they can prove themselves to be the best among their rivals, most of them will.
Was this what Dalton meant about a person being fractured? Perhaps they were being disintegrated on purpose, morality removed so as to be stitched back up with less human parts. Maybe in the end his former beliefs would be vestigial, like a foregone tail. Some little nub at the base of his philosophical spine.
The style of The Atlas Six is sufficiently inward-looking that it this is precisely what’s achieved—a systematic dismantling of people, meticulously crafted only to be un-crafted over the course of the novel.
It’s an ambitious style, one that bets on the character studies being interesting enough that plot becomes a relative non-factor. The emotional stakes need to feel high for each person.
To Blake’s credit, few of the relationships went where I expected. Among the most fascinating is Callum, an empath who can sense emotions, and, creepily, convince anyone of anything. His apathy is something rarely seen in literature because it’s hard to write in a compelling way. But in this case, it’s fascinating—twisted and painful. A curse, in Callum’s own words. And while this isn’t much addressed in the book itself, I’m interested in the choice of making him a blonde-haired, blue-eyed, straight male South African. Callum is whatever happens when highly intelligent privilege finally begins to rot. A tragedy, in a way.
Parisa, the femme fatale telepath, is even more interesting than she’s written. Her narratives overflow with generalizations that made me want to throw the book: everyone is made vulnerable by sex, she declares. All people are the same in their desire to be unique and their desire to fit in. To me, this conclusion—that powerful telepathy makes humanity homogenous and boring, a puzzle eventually solved—is the less compelling route.
“There would be the slightest pulse of contemplation here—the hardest work was managed in the moments before a thing was accomplished. the promise of her breath on his lips; the angle at which he viewed her, her dark eyes overlarge, and the way he would gradually become conscious of her warmth.”
I’m more interested in the limitations of telepathy (and empathy, for that matter) to solve the human puzzle. Parisa’s most interesting sections happened deep in the unconscious. How much of a person exists beyond thought and instinct? Like a prescient trying to see into an uncertain future, I am more interested in the ways we are each unavoidably unique. So sometimes, Parisa sounds like a jaded, conceited high school senior, convinced she knows all the answers while making the basic human mistake of trying to categorize everything.
The most disappointing character was Reina, who was also my favorite. She sits around reading books and staying in her lane. She doesn’t want to be owned or used. She’s objectively awesome. But she’s also broken down the least, and her complexities are not investigated at all. As a result, her chapters are underwhelming and sometimes feel like unnecessary clingers-on to the more compelling chapters.
Clearly, there are three other characters. Tristan is one of the most fascinating characters, given the most time over the course of the novel to unravel and stew in his complicated-ness. Nico and Libby, indeed a pair, feel younger, but in a good way. They deal with younger but still legitimate, compelling internal struggles.
Overall, the characters in this novel are a triumph. I could talk about them, and probably to them, for hours. They are all intensely interesting.
Although, I think I could do with never having to speak to Callum… *shivers*
The plot is only barely there in the novel, limply peeking in when the story keens for something to propel it forward.
The twist at the end will surprise and even delight some. I found it boring and straightforward and unearned next to the complexity of the character work. Perhaps a result of Blake doing her job too well.
The central premise—a secret society protecting the Library of Alexandria, which has survived and moved to England with the rise of imperialism—is hardly explored. For the book’s purposes, the Library is a database for magical knowledge, and therefore merely a vehicle for info-dumping about Blake’s contemporary magical world. there are some good quotes and ideas about the value of academia and knowledge—whether it should be hoarded by elitist organizations who know how best to wield it, the dangers of academic insulation—but they’re not brought into the plot at all. The Forum—pah. A fine idea, sure. But mostly irrelevant to the characters, and therefore to the plot.
The big plot point for most of the book—(this is hardly a spoiler. One of them must die for the rest to be initiated) is perhaps the only thing in the book that feels utterly contrived. The vibe of this book was NOT supposed to be The Hunger Games. Though that may be a personal preference.
Still, the plot wasn’t the point. It did what it had to, and absolutely nothing more. Sure, it didn’t get my heart pounding or show off any nimble planning-out, but it provided the world in which these characters could exist. And for that I’m grateful.
Overall, I highly recommend this book. It’s clever and extremely empathetic and asks the right questions. It’s adult in the way it approaches relationships and realities, and its fantasy element is poses conundrums the way science fiction often does.
In fact, I would recommend this book to those who often read Science Fiction but are hesitant to dive into fantasy. The way the human elements are written in The Atlas Six are similar in some ways.