Dark Academia: The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake

Call it September vibes if you want, but I’m on a bit of a dark academia binge at the moment (the genre, not the aesthetic—although I do love me some corduroy, if you must know). In pursuit of which I just read the viral sensation The Atlas Six by Olivie Blake.

I have conflicting thoughts about this book. In a nutshell, it is the story of six extraordinary young medeians (people who possess magical abilities) who are selected to compete for one year to join the highly secretive Alexandrian Society, currently under the care of the enigmatic Atlas Blakely.

Tor Books, 2022

The Atlas six are: Nico de Varona and Libby Rhodes, both physicists who can manipulate matter on the molecular level; Parisa Kamali, a telepath; Callum Nova, an empath; Reina Mori, a naturalist to whom plants speak; and Tristan Caine, who is still plumbing the depths of his gift, which involves seeing through illusion of all kinds. At the end of the year, only five of them will move on to initiation — one will be eliminated.

One of the things that makes this book both compelling and frustrating is the way that the characters remain combative and wary of each other through its entirety. Yes, alliances are formed, but this is emphatically not a story about community and friendship and found family among misfits. Rather, it is a story about the myriad ways that people can (and do) hurt one another, and the ways in which we try to protect ourselves.

There is a roving, sometimes tongue-in-cheek third-person narrative that switches between these six characters, and this, too, makes it fascinating. We see inside all of their minds and we also see the way they perceive each other. As one might expect from a group of highly skilled and unusual wielders of magic, they all see things in sharp, astute, and individual ways.

The story also frequently digresses into reflections about space and time and other theories of physics. I kind of loved this, because what’s dark academia without some, well, academics? Alongside its physics lessons, it invites you to think about power, sacrifice, connection, the things that shape us as people, and the question of how far you would go to get the things you want.

We study the realm of consciousness because we understand that to decide something, to weigh a cost and accept its consequences, is to forcibly alter the world in some tangible way. That is a magic as true and as real as any other.”

—The Atlas Six

However, there were some things that I didn’t love about this book. The way the narrative switches between characters felt unbalanced. The pattern of whose perspective we get seemed rather random, with some characters getting a lot more time than others. And it was often the characters that I longed to hear from who were the most absent. And as I mentioned above, this is a sort of academic version of Lord of the Flies, and that is not typically my cup of tea. On the whole, I prefer stories about people building trust in the face of adversity to stories about people turning out to be selfish and mercenary.

Blake treads the line between making her characters believably gifted and Machiavellian, and downright unlikable. Some of them reveal enough vulnerability that they remain interesting. Others, for me, do not. I was disappointed in the female characters in particular. Two of them play into tired stereotypes of the “bad seductress” and the “good girl,” and I didn’t find that there were enough nuances to allow these characters to break out of their tropes in any significant ways. Unquestionably, the male characters were more interesting and more fleshed out.

Because I don’t personally enjoy bleak stories, a question I’ve taken to asking myself recently is: Where is the heart of this book? Without a doubt, the heart of The Atlas Six is the character of Nico de Varona. Nico is the only one with a significant subplot, and also the only one who has any impulses that are not purely selfish. This thread is what engaged me. Call me a softie, but at the end of the day it is Nico’s story I want, and he is the reason I’m invested.

The good news is that it looks like Nico’s subplot is about to take centre stage in book two, The Atlas Paradox, if its teaser is anything to go by. There are a few secondary characters also poised to have a bigger role, and I think that as the series continues and reaches beyond the confines of these six minds, it will only get better.

The verdict: Did I love this book? No. Am I planning to read the sequel as soon as it comes out on October 25? Yes, yes I am. Take from that what you will.

The PanMacMillan blog has a “Which Atlas Six Magician Are You?” quiz. My result was the introverted Reina, surprising no one.

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