It is a truth universally acknowledged that an awful lot of the things that earn the label of “viral sensation” online don’t quite live up to the hype. (Remember when we had to tell people not to eat Tide Pods?) This is why it’s such a relief that last summer’s massive BookTok hit The Atlas Six is actually just as good as everyone online said it was.
Olivie Blake’s dark academia fantasy novel was originally self-published via Kindle Digital Publishing in early 2020 but went viral on social media site TikTok last year, garnering over 11 million mentions and dominating discussion for months. The result of all this success was a major publishing battle for rights to the story (which Tor Books ultimately won) and a deal with Amazon Studios to adapt a television version of the suddenly uber-popular novel.
A revised and edited edition of The Atlas Six with brand new illustrations hit shelves this week ahead of the release of the sequel The Atlas Paradox this Fall and let’s put it this way: The time to get on this fantasy hype train is right now.
The story centers on the mysterious Alexandrian Society, a secretive body that serves as caretakers of lost knowledge from the greatest civilizations of antiquity (such as the library that gives the group its name). Every 10 years, the group recruits six of the most powerful young magic users (known in this world as medeians, not to be confused with simple witches!) to join their ranks, but only after an initiation period that requires them to live, study, and learn to survive together.
Each of the six new would-be members chosen by Caretaker Atlas Blakely to form the latest class possesses powerful and unique abilities. Libby Rhodes and Nicolas Ferrer de Varona have been rivals since their earliest college days thanks to their immense skills in elemental magic. Reina Mori is a naturalist capable of talking to (and controlling) plants. Parisa Kamali is one of the most powerful telepaths of her generation, and Callum Nova is her equal as an empath, one as talented at manipulating people’s minds as he is reading them. And Tristan Caine, son of an influential magical crime boss, can see through illusions and possibly even reality itself—an ability that’s so rare even the Society itself isn’t fully clear on the limits of what his powers could one day accomplish.
As a group, they’d be almost unstoppable, but mistrust and dislike are rife amongst them, especially since they already know that they’re five people competing for six slots. Because before any of them can formally become Society members (and unlock all the power, prestige, and forbidden knowledge that comes with membership) one of them will have to be eliminated.
The Atlas Six is a dense, complicated story that’s heavy on the character work and light on the plot until the last third or so of the novel kicks things into incredibly high gear, you’ll spend a lot of time simply hanging out with these characters and digging into what makes them tick.
As a writer, Blake is wonderfully stingy with her exposition, allowing us to get to know both the personalities and the histories of these characters through their actions in each individual POV chapter. Her characterizations are rich and thorough—none of the six are especially good people or even likable most of the time. (In fact, several of them are kind of huge jerks!) They all make selfish choices and often downright dumb decisions. But, the emotional underpinnings of their various behaviors have been so carefully laid out throughout the story that it makes their mistakes, if not wise, at least understandable.
Each of the titular Six has more than their fair share of personal issues and traumas to process, and each at various points must question what it is they’ve been given all this power to do. And, of course, there’s lots (and lots) of sexual tension, because it’s half a dozen attractive young people with magical powers living in close quarters and playing mind games with one another for hundreds of pages and none of us are made of stone, okay. (Confession: My rooting interests, relationship-wise, changed multiple times over the course of this book, bring on the sequel ASAP, and please DM me your thoughts on this important issue, fellow readers.)
But despite the fact that much of The Atlas Six’s premise is essentially a magical reality show where the six potential initiates are forced to live, study, flirt, and do magic together for a year (Big Brother: Dark Academia Edition!), the book balances its more melodramatic tendencies with weightier philosophical questions throughout.
Is there some knowledge that should truly be forbidden, possibly even destroyed? Or should all information be freely available, to allow everyone to make their own choices? Are there abilities—or people—who simply should not exist because they are too dangerous to the world? And if that’s the case, who makes those decisions about potentially life and death access? The Atlas Six doesn’t offer us any easy answers, but it certainly is an enjoyable ride.
The Atlas Six
is available now; sequel The Atlas Paradox is slated to hit bookstore shelves in October.
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.