________________ CM . . . . Volume XII Number 15 . . . . March 31, 2006


Key to Aten. (The Aten Chronicles).

Lynn Sinclair.
Weston, CT: Brown Barn Books (Distributed in Canada by Publishers Group Canada), 2005.
179 pp., pbk., $12.95.
ISBN 0-9746481-7-5.

Grades 6-9 / Ages 11-14.

Review by Joan Marshall.

*** /4


The riders let out a riproaring, "Yihah!" and smacked the reins against their horses. It looked like we'd try to outrun the roving trees.

"Meet you on the other side," Caden yelled.

The riders split up, each going in a haphazard direction and I guessed they wanted to confuse the trees. It made about as much sense as everything else.

Without a saddle, I was sure I'd be tossed off the back of the horse as it sped across the Drylands. Why hadn't anyone invented seatbelts for horses? I held onto Caden so tightly it was a wonder he was able to breathe. Then the trees pulled a fast one. Instead of remaining in a solid bunch, they spread out to block our paths. I kept telling myself they were just trees. Trees that could move. Trees that could think. I squeezed my eyes shut.

My skin cooled. We slowed and the horse huffed and blew. I opened my eyes. We were in the trees. Tall, heavily-branched cedars bunched close together like a hedge. I glanced around, but there were no other riders with us. Caden followed a path that wound through the hedge and came to a dead end.

"What's going on?" I whispered.

"It's a maze," he said, "and we have to find our way out."

"What if we don't?"

'Then the maze wins."

"Should I be worried, Caden?"

"Not in the least."


What would our world be like after a cataclysmic disaster that destroyed civilization as we know it? What other life forms would evolve, and who would help Earth support a peaceful community? Key to Aten addresses these pertinent questions in a compelling fantasy that skips lightly across the water of adventure, drawing the reader into a ripping, gruesome plot and a satisfying love story shot through with magic.

     Sixteen-year-old Jodi, the sad child of an alcoholic single mother, suddenly finds herself sucked into the dreams of her friend, Neil, who has never resolved his pain over his father's disappearance three years ago. They find themselves in the world of Aten, a place that resembles Earth's geography, a place where giant spiders eat people, trees move, flash floods threaten travel, and human-like tribes attack each other viciously. Allegiances and even identities shift, with no one being whom they seem to be. Jodi and Neil are rescued by Caden, the nephew of Arax, the leader of the Dani tribe, who are on their way to negotiate with the Millet tribe, hoping to regain custody of the Conjurer, a powerful individual who will help them rebuild their world. Aladar, the leader of the Awes who control the forest, rescues them. Or does he capture them? In Holo, a grubby town centred in a crater, ruled by the evil Major and his henchman, Murdy, Jodi is thrown in prison and meets Nashira, a leader of the Nera, a group of women who live in the magical Nereen, a beautiful, peaceful bubble of community. Together, they escape and help to save Nereen from the Major's attacks. Jodi discovers that the Nera's children (one of whom is Caden) are quietly using their magic powers to re-build Aten and promote peace. Neil and Jodi search for and find the Conjurer, who turns out to be Neil's father, Mr. Moran, who is dedicated to using an underground library of information from the old Earth to help the Nera establish peace on Aten/Earth again. In a final moment of danger, Neil returns Jodi to Earth where she meets the Nera "Mother" who tells Jodi that she had been placed on Earth for her safety and that she should now return to Aten where her destiny lies. A sequel is apparently in progress.

     The world of Aten, with its warring tribes and medieval nature, is beautifully constructed, with hints of what Earth had been like, pre-disaster, hovering in the background. It is a world of horses, daggers, faerie-like forest magic and fierce loyalties, one in which geography determines action and survival but magic (or is it science?) is ultimately the power that destroys evil.

     Jodi is a strong heroine, a modern teenager with a wry wit and a determination to survive that stands her in good stead through countless adventures. Gradually falling in love with Caden and his world, she rises out of her depressing Earth life to take her place as a leader in Aten. Sympathetic and loyal to Neil, Jodi stays with him, realizing that his search for his father is somehow connected with Aten's survival. Torn between her safe life on Earth and the terrifying world of Aten, Jodi finds the inner strength to commit to loving Caden and to reconstructing peace in his world. Although Neil is a weak character, there merely for the plot device of his father's disappearance and Jodi's loyalty, strong secondary characters abound in this novel. Caden is the vivacious hero who doesn't quite yet understand his destiny. Arax, his uncle, and Aladar, the Awes' leader, are both political connivers, one determined to hold on to power and the other fiercely protective of his forest world. Nashira and the Nera, superhumans sent to Aten from other worlds, have, in the way of all women, quietly gone about their business of rescuing over time, while retaining their magical abilities to heal and to wipe out evil. The contrast between the war-like male leaders of tribes and the peaceful, thoughtful planning of the Nera is striking.

     The reader will find it difficult to put down this novel as a new adventure in this strange world appears every few pages. The heart-stopping, menacing spiders, the evil selling of people as slaves and the disgusting slugs that digest people alive will entertain even the most reluctant reader. Each new twist in the plot introduces another factor that gradually helps to build the setting and test the characters as they reveal the author's themes of peaceful community, the necessity of knowledge and the centrality of friendship and love to human life. Jodi's references to life on Earth and her puzzlement at the customs of Aten re-enforce its bizarre nature. The dialogue is quick and natural, sometimes cryptic and mysterious enough to draw the reader on but never awkward or lecturing. Sinclair is careful to let the story evolve instead of falling into the trap of explaining too much.

     This novel could have been much longer, with more detailed descriptions that would have led to a more satisfying, richer sense of how the author sees the future of Earth. One wonders, too, if the time-slip fantasy is an unnecessary device as Jodi and Neil don't spend much time on Earth and are spuriously returned there in the middle of the novel to communicate their difficulties to each other, something which could have taken place on Aten.

     However, even if it irritates the dedicated fantasy fan who demands more detail, the zippy plot will keep the attention of most impatient middle school readers and have them looking forward with anticipation to the second chronicle of Aten.


Joan Marshall, a former teacher-librarian, is now a bookseller in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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