How do you follow up a viral phenomenon? That is, at least in part, the question we must ask of The Atlas Paradox, Olivie Blake’s highly anticipated sequel to the popular dark academia novel The Atlas Six, a self-published fantasy debut that went so viral it won a publishing deal and dominated social media publishing discussion for months. Perhaps there was no way that anything that came after those kinds of highs could ever hope equal them, particularly not the middle novel in a trilogy, which can’t give us the answers we’re so desperately seeking.
To be fair, The Atlas Paradox isn’t bad. Far from it, in fact. It’s a deeply philosophical, extremely nerdy exploration of ethics and morality that ticks a lot of the boxes about what the whole idea of the dark academia sub-genre is supposed to be and do in the first place. Blake’s prose remains gorgeous, and her characters are realistically messy, running the gamut from sympathetic disasters to offputtingly self-obsessed jerks. But the pace of this book is positively glacial at times, and it’s often a textbook example of middle story syndrome, occasionally struggling to clearly articulate the reason for its existence. Thankfully, the novel has a killer (excuse the sort of pun?) ending that more than proves worth the journey to reach it, though it’s likely some readers will be annoyed about how long it takes to get there.
This sequel to The Atlas Six picks up almost immediately where the first book left off. Libby Rhodes has been kidnapped by her time traveler ex-boyfriend Ezra and sent back to the past, providing a convenient loophole that allows the rest of the initiate class to survive without killing one of their number in order to remain part of the group. But as the remaining new members of the Alexandrian Society discover that joining a secret society isn’t exactly what they’d hoped—from the bizarre initiation ritual that requires them to publicly face up to their own weaknesses to the library archives that regularly withhold knowledge from them—they’ll have to figure out what exactly they’re willing to do with this new power they wield. (And possibly, whether they should have it at all.)
It feels important to note that without the propulsive murder competition scheme that drove much of The Atlas Six (and the first year of the new initiates’ time at the Society), this sequel initially struggles to find its purpose. While the search for Libby is ostensibly the animating principle of this part of the story, almost two-thirds of the novel is given over to what might politely be called navel-gazing, as the five remaining members wrestle much more personal concerns, from their shifting feelings toward one another and their plans for the future to big picture existential questions about power and morality.
Don’t get me wrong, if what you’re here for is the various relationships between and among this group of deeply broken human time bombs, you’ll find a lot to like here and the tension within the larger group is deftly handled. Telepath Parisa begins to discover she may actually be beginning to care about others despite her best efforts not to. Empath Callum develops a drinking problem which may or may not be related to the fact that he should probably be dead. Illusionist Tristan struggles to understand the breadth of his abilities, which may be able to rewrite reality itself. Physicist Nico spirals without the presence of his constant rival/partner Libby, and naturalist Reina begins to question whether or not she might actually be a god—and openly resent those that seem to take her (and her abilities) for granted. As for Libby, she’s trapped in 1989 and desperately seeking a way home—while asking herself how far she’s willing to go to find it.
Despite the fact that Blake reveals some fairly key secrets about Atlas’s past and his ultimate future goals for both the Society and the six new members he has most recently recruited to its halls in this book, The Atlas Paradox primarily takes place in the heads of the story’s characters. In the wake of their initiation, each is preoccupied with either wallowing in their own perceived flaws or cattily dissecting the supposed weaknesses of their compatriots. Their stories are less claustrophobic than in the previous book, as each character’s independent study projects force them to confront their own belief systems and the choices they’ve made thus far. As a result, for the bulk of the story, characters pursue their own arcs and emotional journies in ways that are largely separate from one another. Libby’s transition from an anxious mess to a literal force of nature is the book’s most compelling, but Reina’s is perhaps the most tragic, given that it’s such a cry for someone, anyone to love her best.
The Atlas Paradox once again rotates POVs through all our major characters, adding in a handful of additional voices with brief snippets from Ezra, Gideon, and a new character named Belen, a Filipina undergraduate and climate activist in 1980s Los Angeles who ends up meeting Libby while she’s trapped in the past and whose life is brutally altered by their relationship. (And the choices Libby makes while they know each other.) And Blake is gleefully unafraid to let her characters be both wildly unreliable and deeply unlikable narrators, asking us to find the sympathetic aspects of their stories that still persist almost in spite of themselves.
And there are moments of lovely emotion and real catharsis to be found here: Gideon and Nico’s relationship remains a highlight, as does Tristan’s ongoing attempt to process the fact that his father is an abusive monster and Callum’s nihilistic descent into meaninglessness. And the uncomfortable detente that forms between Parisa and Atlas himself is fascinating to watch play out.
Thankfully, by the final third of the book, many of the painstakingly laid out plots and multiple timelines finally start to converge, bringing the series’ characters back together and adding a very necessary jolt of forward momentum to the proceedings on the page. As the group is forced to band together to face a new threat and Libby’s plan to return from the past finally begins to bear take shape, the story takes on the propulsive air of the first novel and things rocket toward another cliffhanger ending that promises an explosive (perhaps literally?) end to the series in the trilogy’s third installment.
Some fans will doubtless have issues with the way that much of The Atlas Paradox spends so much time on esoteric philosophical, ethical, and moral debates or the fact that some characters have less to do in this book than they did in the first novel. It’s a slow, occasionally ponderous tale that’s fully redeemed by the twists and turns of its final third, but be warned: Much like the students in the archives themselves, you’re going to have to do the work to earn it.
The Atlas Paradox is available now wherever books are sold.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.