Atherton: The House of Power

Atherton By Patrick Carman [LibrarythingAmazon]

Like the other denizens of Tabletop, Atheron’s middle level, eleven-year-old Edgar can’t read. So when he comes across a secret book that was left to him years ago, he has no choice but to climb the almost-sheer cliffs separating Tabletop from the ruling level, the Highlands, in search of someone to read his book to him. There he befriends a quiet, bookish boy named Samuel, who reads in the book the hidden truth behind Atherton’s recent earthquakes – the Highlands are collapsing into Tabletop. As the people of Tabletop discover the treachery of those in power and prepare to make war on the Highlands, Edgar embarks on a desperate journey to the desolate Flatlands, Atherton’s lowest level, where he may find the answer to the mysteries of Atherton’s very existence – and, possibly, its destruction.

Like Rebecca with Dragon’s Blood, I thought Atherton was a fantasy book until I was well into it. It’s not. Atherton is a made world, essentially grown in a bottle by the brilliant but insane Dr. Harding as a replacement for a dying Earth. It’s built like a three-tiered wedding cake with a round bottom. Water, Atherton’s most precious commodity, flows in three streams from a hidden source in the center of the Highlands, known only to Atherton’s sinister ruler, Lord Phineus. Whatever water is left over flows off of the edge of the Highlands in three waterfalls, where it’s used by the peasant class in Tabletop, who form their three villages around it (the Village of Figs being Edgar’s home). The Flatlands below Tabletop are a barren wasteland where no sane person would ever go (so of course our hero heads straight down there). At first glance, Atherton is supposed to be an Eden (although as a 21st century type, I don’t know if I consider a pared-down feudal system to be precisely Edenic), but the design is flawed, and after holding up for only a few years, Atherton is now collapsing into itself.

It’s a fascinating design for a world, somewhat reminiscent of CrossGen Comics’ Meridian, and the incredibly small population (the vast majority of people were left on the horribly polluted Earth, or “the Dark Planet”) allows Carman to get away with extremely simple and thus extremely striking world-building. The power structure is simplistic, the agriculture even more so, but it works (Carman’s all-purpose hybrid fig trees are particularly inspired). Some of the science gets a bit wonky, particularly Carman’s description of how Atherton’s gravity works – not to mention the fact that the essentially hollow Atherton shouldn’t have enough mass to hold an atmosphere – but for the most part the world-building is the strongest aspect of the book.

Edgar is something of a nonentity, unfortunately. He’s a really good climber, and extremely determined once he sets his mind on something, but aside from that he’s not particularly interesting or relatable. Far more compelling are the other two children in the book, who don’t get nearly as much page time, alas. First off there’s Samuel, whose father used to be one of Lord Phineus’ right hand men until his mysterious death; now Samuel’s mother works as a cook in the House of Power, and Samuel spends most of his time reading. Despite the tragedy in his past, Samuel reads as much more of a child than Edgar and is thus engaging and likeable. He gets scared and is easily overcome by adults, but is doing his best to make up for it now. Then there’s Isabel, who works in the fig grove with Edgar and is always following him around and making a pest of herself, as little girls do. Once the adventure starts, however, she proves herself to be remarkably competent, to the point that her fellow rebels in the Village of Figs look to her for leadership and guidance. By the end of the book Samuel and Isabel have teamed up to restore water to the people of Atherton, and I have to say I was far more interested in their quest than in Edgar’s.

The plot details were a little wobbly. Dr. Harding’s motives for creating Atherton and sending people off to live on an unfinished world are never explained with anything more satisfying than “he was insane.” The book is riddled with references to and even quotes from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, so you get the sense that the never-seen Harding created life and tampered with the laws of God and man just because he could, but that’s not really enough for me. The avuncular Dr. Kincaid seems to know plenty, but tends to hold things back for specious reasons, just to heighten the suspense.

There were also some weak points in the prose. The narrative voice was never firmly established; at times the narrator addresses the reader directly, but who the narrator is and where he or she gets authority to speak is never made clear. I don’t ask for the narrator to be a fully-realized character like Lemony Snicket of A Series of Unfortunate Events, but if the narrator is going to communicate directly to the reader, a stronger voice needs to be established. As it is, the point-of-view shifts disconcertingly and not-at-all convincingly from character to character, and the periodic personal pronouns the narrator steps into are jarring. There was also far too much telling and not nearly enough showing:

This was not the timid little girl he’d expected, but Samuel felt he’d be more likely to get help from her than any adult he might encounter. He began pleading with her to help him.

“Do you know a boy named Edgar?” yelled Samuel. He saw a glimmer of acknowledgment on Isabel’s face. “I know him! He came to see me in the Highlands. I’m only trying to find him!”

Mr. Carman, if you’re going to have Samuel plead for help, it is not necessary to tell us in advance that he will now be pleading for help. He can just make with the pleading.

Aside from Isabel, I found the treatment of women a little annoying. Most notable was the complete emotional collapse of Samuel’s mother after her husband’s death:

Samuel’s mother hadn’t always been so frail. There was a time when she’d enjoyed a higher station in life and demonstrated more poise, but then Samuel’s father had passed away in a dreadful accident. When it happened, her thin outer shell of confidence was shaken and she seemed to crack into a thousand pieces all at once. Her station in the kitchen was the result of the loss of Samuel’s father, for he had been a man of great importance before the accident. Without his authority, Samuel’s mother had been relegated to a life of servitude.

There are certainly people, male and female, who fall apart after the death of a loved one. There are certainly people, male and female, who lose their status when their more-important loved one dies. But no indication is given that Samuel’s mother is anything but a typical woman in this regard. In fact, extreme care is taken to point out that Maude, an aggressive, no-nonsense women from the Village of Rabbits, is an extraordinary woman. This seems to imply that Samuel’s mother is in fact the norm for the women of Atherton, especially since Isabel’s mother is very similar to Samuel’s. I’m not sure why a weak will is depicted as a typical attribute for women, but I do know that I don’t like it.

On the whole, however, Atherton was entertaining and exciting, and left me wanting to know what will happen to this apparently-doomed world. I give this book three and a half cupcakes, and will definitely be picking up the next in the series.

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