Every 10 years, the secretive Alexandrian Society, inheritors of the lost knowledge from its namesake library, recruits six of the most powerful young magic users, or medeians, to join their ranks. The half-dozen potential initiates are brought to the Society’s headquarters, where they study and learn from the greatest compendium of magical knowledge that has ever existed. This year, Caretaker Atlas Blakely has selected a sextet of particularly ambitious young medeians: three physical mediums, who specialize in manipulating external forces and energies for purposes as varied as deflecting bullets and obtaining midnight snacks; and three nascent masters of the mental, emotional and perceptual magics of reading minds and concealing acne. But these newest residents are confronted with even darker secrets than the arcane knowledge they all covet, for they are the linchpins in a conspiracy that could either save the world or utterly destroy it.
For a book with such a melodramatic premise (think “Big Brother,” but half the cast can read their companions’ minds and the other half can conjure actual black holes), Olivie Blake’s The Atlas Six is curiously matter-of-fact, dispensing with on-page relationship drama and coasting through tense fight scenes with brevity. Likewise, instead of providing flowing backstory, Blake communicates personalities through lighthearted conversations and depicts the world outside the Library’s magically warded walls entirely through the scars it left on her protagonists. The Atlas Six is stingy with its exposition, with the lengthiest passages being debates between characters on topics such as the nature of time and the conservation of magical energy. But in Blake’s hands, these tracts are engaging and often very, very funny. This duality—an extremely pulpy plot married with smart and nimble writing—is the core of The Atlas Six’s appeal.
This macabre romp of a magical reality show nevertheless revolves around one weighty question: Is there knowledge that should not be shared? Blake draws heavily on the structures and practices of academia, which in our world is in the midst of a push for greater transparency and democratization of knowledge. Analyzing the costs and benefits of advanced technology or abilities has been central to speculative fiction since its inception. That Blake is using academia as a vehicle for it, adding her agile and cutting voice to the likes of Neal Stephenson and Cixin Liu, feels particularly relevant to the present moment. And if she happens to suggest some legitimately wholesome uses for small wormholes along the way, all the better.