Escape from Atlantis
Escape from Atlantis
“What do you mean you can’t board? That’s not fair!”
Maggie took Riley‘s hand and it was quivering. “We—we are not welcome there because we are different. I must face this night alone as I have all the others since I—“ Maggie stopped speaking.
Riley frowned. “Wait, just because you’re turning into a cat, you can’t go where it’s safe?”
Maggie paused. “You—you understand what is happening to me?”
Riley nodded. “Of course. I’ve met Pea and seen him without his cloak. He’s harmless. But they won’t let him on board either?”
Maggie shook her head. “None of us can board.”
“Those are the rules. I don’t understand why they won’t let Pea aboard, but for me it’s because no one knows what kind of feline I will be when my change is complete. I may stop changing now and stay in this yellow cloak, or perhaps I might turn into a simple cat and be accepted as Miss Pigglesworth is accepted. But I may also turn into something more ferocious and not be able to control myself. Then I will be forced into a red cloak and eventually banished to the Forbidden Zone.”
“But you’re not dangerous now.”
“No, I am not.”
“Then you can’t stay out,” Riley said desperately. “Look, I have a cabin all to myself. There’s plenty of room for you. And Pea, too, if I can find him. If this Red Moon is as bad as everyone says...”
“It is,” she said. “I was nearly killed during the last one.”
“Then you must come with me.”
“I can’t. It is forbidden.”
“I hate that word!” Riley stormed. “So many things here are forbidden. Those rules are wrong.” She walked over to the basket of clothes that had been repaired. “Maybe there is something in here we can use to hide you, so you look like a person.”
“But if I am caught breaking the rules...”
“You won’t be.” Riley pulled out several pieces of larger clothes. Then she found a straw hat that was set to be repaired. She also found a work scarf that came from those working in the vegetable fields.
“Please, let’s just try.”
Maggie allowed Riley to take her out of her yellow cloak. When she stood before her, Riley saw that her entire body was covered in fur, much like a tabby cat, but Maggie could also look like a leopard. She had a long tail that twitched with nerves.
Riley tried not to stare, but when Maggie caught her, the cat-woman lowered her head. “I have not been seen for anyone for so long.”
“You’re just so beautiful”, Riley said.
Tears rose in Maggie’s eyes. “No I’m not.”
“Yes, you are—really, I mean it!” Riley insisted. She grinned and put the straw hat on Maggie’s head playfully. It pushed her feline ears down and they poked out the side. “Now how about we get you dressed?”
It was just supposed to be a family bonding boat trip to the Caribbean over spring break. Instead, 13-year-old Riley, her father, cousin and aunt, find themselves caught up in an otherworldly storm and attacked by a sea monster. When Riley awakes, she has been washed ashore on a tropical island, along with her annoying cousin, Alfie. They are met by Bastian, a boy who introduces them to the group of people who all live together in a grounded cruise ship. The islanders, also castaways, call themselves the Community and inform Riley and Alfie that their parents are dead. They must learn to join the group and be happy and useful. There are many dangers on the islands, and strict rules are supposed to protect the kids. But Riley isn’t satisfied with these answers and begins her own investigation. She soon determines that her father and Alfie’s mother are not dead but are trapped on the dangerous part of the island. With the help of new friends Maggie (who is morphing into a cat) and Pea (who is becoming a koala), Riley and Alfie find their parents, start fixing up an old boat and plan an escape. With the help of a wise gargoyle called Gideon and a sea siren called Galina, Riley uses all her smarts to execute a daring getaway.
What makes this novel work is Riley. She’s tough and stubborn, thoughtful and willing to learn. She evolves from a cranky teen who just wants to hang out with her friends to the engineer of the entire escape plan, a resourceful and kind youth. She’s a great heroine and engages the reader throughout this long book. She is easy to relate to and also becomes an first-rate role model. She and Alfie begin as foes; he’s always needling her, reading her diary, calling her Shorty. They both mature a lot during their shipwreck and become an inseparable team.
The other strongest element of the book is its commitment to fairness and justice. Riley is absolutely appalled when she discovers that the islanders who are changing into animals must wear yellow and blue cloaks and are being treated differently and discriminated against. The Community requires their labour but gives them no protection or companionship in return. During the dreaded, dangerous Red Moons, these hybrid animal/people are left to their own devices, and many of them are killed each cycle. Few of the changing people expect to live much longer. Riley is quick to say that this is wrong, and she continues to ponder this problem throughout the book. She believes that it is important to speak out and wonders what she can do to help. It is clear that she is a strong person and a natural leader and that she could easily stay and take on this role in time. However, her humanitarian impulses are second to her desire to return home. So this project of liberation is either aborted, or postponed, if Riley returns to the island at a later date. As the first book in the “Atlantis” series, the door is very much left open as lots of threads were left hanging. It is still a little surprising that Riley leaves without disrupting the system at all.
The idea that people who are different should not be treated as different is the main moral of the book, and it is powerfully reinforced as Riley becomes close friends with Maggie, Pea and, to a lesser extent, Miss Pigglesworth (who is a dog). The story offers an interesting meditation on what makes us human. Many of the human characters are less compassionate, tolerant, skilled or thoughtful than those who are becoming animals. Not only is this thematically intriguing, it is also fun. O’Hearn is at her best when creating these characters who are in flux, stretching her creativity with their metamorphoses.
There are many questions to be asked about this ‘de-evolution’ plot, though. Why is it happening? To what end do these changes occur? Does the island, itself, want people to return to their animal origins? Or is there some other secret magical force? There are lost opportunities here, perhaps to be revisited in future books. Some of the people welcome the change and want to become animals, but the change is generally represented as being bad. The exception is Riley’s father who ultimately becomes a dolphin and elects to stay in the sea. There is plenty of room for discussion around the ideas of radical personal change and where we all belong and feel comfortable.
The Community is run by a few senior people who want control over the population. Many members of the group (including Alfie, at one point) are given memory berries so that they will not ask questions and will conform. These somewhat sinister leaders remain sketches rather than characters. The main villain is Mada, a tiger who was once a gentle man, a close friend to Pea. Every time danger is required in the plot, Mada pops up, threatening to kill Riley. Kerry is the main human antagonist, a generic bully who is jealous of Riley. She is a bit one-dimensional, and she could have been utilized in order to place some actual crucial hurdle to Riley and Alfie’s escape.
Escape from Atlantis contains occasional clunky world-building. The island contains a “Forbidden Zone” where the “Red Cloaks”, murderous animals who retain little humanity, are free to hunt. Somehow, some scary unicorns enforce these island zones although it is not clear why. Much of this is over-explained, and should have been allowed to develop organically, without the awkward names. If how the island worked was kept a bit more mysterious, we would have figured things out as Riley did. Of course, some of the workings of the island are secret, and these are a bit more interesting as, for example, Riley meets and befriends Gideon the gargoyle. The strange goings-on of this hidden island are somewhat reminiscent of the TV show Lost, with its elements of supernatural mystery and many layers of mythology and rules. The island has few resources (fruit is harvested) and relies on the sea to bring supplies from shipwrecks. Riley works in the sewing studio where they carefully repair clothing as it is in short supply; however, there is apparently ample material for all those who are changing to be given the correct colour cloaks. Other minor details don’t always add up.
My one real quibble with the book isn’t that important but is still irritating. Why is the island on which Riley and Alfie wash up Atlantis? Nothing about it bears any relation to legends of Atlantis. No reference to any aspect of Atlantis comes up, except to say that this is it. There is no relevant mythology or any hint or mention of any of the events of the Atlantis story. Nor has this island sunk. There is one theory that Atlantis was swallowed by the Bermuda Triangle (the area where Riley’s boat is attacked by the leviathan), but this is not likely to be known to readers of this book. There are many possibilities to include meaningful connection to Atlantis, by discovering ancients’ ruins or stories of the people who once lived there, but nothing in the book makes it of note that this is Atlantis. This is a little distracting and also a lost opportunity.
Escape From Atlantis is a fun adventure story with a compelling heroine. It’s got plenty of plot and action and first-rate dialogue. Some of its mythology isn’t as strong as it could have been, but its world of people morphing into animals is unusual and very well-realized.
Kris Rothstein is a children’s book agent, editor and cultural critic in Vancouver, British Columbia.