The Atlas Six – Feet Under

I am going to level with you right off the bat, I did not like The Atlas Six. Olivie Blake’s self-published hit has littered my TikTok feed for months and I feel I was peer pressured into trying the book out. The book has recently been picked up by a major publisher and they were kind enough to send me a beautiful review copy. The best thing I can say about this book is that the finished copy is absolutely gorgeous. It has one of my favorite recent dust jackets and many of the chapters have stunning full-page sketches of the characters that litter the book – but that is about where most of my praise ends.

The plot of The Atlas Six is compelling on the surface. The book takes place in a Harry Potter-esque world where magic is real, but life mostly continues on for most people with a small proportion using whimsical undefined magic to improve their life. We follow the stories of six incredibly talented mages who are all selected to take part in a two-year rush for a secret society that runs the fabulous Library of Alexandria. The only catch is that one of the six won’t make it and will be eliminated.

The backbone of this book is the characters, and that backbone has crippling scoliosis. None of the characters are as cool as the writer clearly thinks they are, and it is painfully obvious that Blake thinks her characters are extremely cool. The characters all have the veneer of being interesting without having any actual depth. There is a direct correlation between how unpleasant a character is to be around and how much page time they have. They aren’t even the “fun to hate” kind of assholes, they are the “trying desperately to be tragic and profound” kind of assholes. All of it comes back to feeling like a book that feels like it was designed to be quotable so that it appears amazing, with nothing under the hood.

One thing I found particularly egregious is that Blake clearly has favorites when it comes to the six competing characters. Of the six characters, three sit in a relatively balanced middle ground, one is a complete non-character, one is favored, and the last is the author’s beloved heart. Parisa was my least favorite character, with her entire deal being boiled down to a very basic “woman who lived a tortured life because she was just too hot”, and she owns about 50% of the page space for the six characters. The chapters rotated POVs from the six in a circuit, but a number of POVs are just other characters talking about how cool, dark, tortured, hot, and mysterious Parisa is.

This book lives and dies by its character synergy since the entirety of the story it is the six contestants sitting in what is essentially a group study for the entire book. Speaking of synergy, there is none. This story is fuelled by fake conflict and everyone hates each other for seemingly no reason. Factions form early, for no reason, and characters are constantly coming up with bad reasons to not trust one another. It was clear that Blake wanted the first book to be about the group overcoming their differences and to be a drama about different big personalities stuffed into a small space. But, all of it feels extremely manufactured and since there isn’t a lot of substance to the story outside of the characters, the lack of any group chemistry feels agonizing.

Expanding upon this, the pacing was all over the place and the worldbuilding was upsettingly thin. This book ends at what feels like a very arbitrary point with a very unnatural climax. The back 20% is just a rockslide of “twists” that should be pretty apparent from the context and feels very strange – as if to say the first 4/5ths of the book was background information. The pacing manages to be both too fast and too slow at the same time. We have the problem of nothing ever happening so scenes feel like they drag on forever. At the same time, the characters feel like they are never given a chance to breathe, always jumping from one dramatic argument to another.

Some of this is caused by the fact that the worldbuilding is so thin on the ground. Blake mostly relies on society’s collective existing knowledge that the Library of Alexandria was a really cool wondrous place that everyone would want to go to, without establishing anything about her version in the book. All we see of the Library, which is the core motivation for every character in this story, is that a couple of lost scrolls and spells are provided to a character interested in history. And the cast is given the vague promise of power. It really doesn’t feel like enough to buy into the entire book’s premise.

On top of all of this, The Atlas Six has messy themes. The only cohesive idea that seems to come through most of the book is that “murder = bad”. Yet even this idea is muddied by the fact that in part two of the story we see a multitude of the cast brutally kill a number of invaders of the library in order to defend its secrets. So then I guess the core theme becomes “murder = bad, sometimes” which isn’t exactly a profound statement.

In the end, The Atlas Six feels more like a jumble of cool ideas that looked good on paper than an actually cohesive story. There is possibly a good book here, deep under the surface, but what I read was a jumbled mess. Given the ending of book one in this series, I would hazard to guess that I would probably like the second installment more. However, at this point, I do not know if I would be willing to give it a chance.

Rating: The Atlas Six – 3.5/10

I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an unbiased review. The thoughts on this story are my own.

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