Myst I: The Book of Atrus

by Rand Miller, Robyn Miller and David Wingrove
Hyperion Books. ©1995
ISBN: 978-0786881888
Mass Market Paperback, 422 pages.

Anna is the only person young Atrus has ever known. His mother died in childbirth. His father, Gehn, abandoned Atrus immediately after, leaving him to his grandmother to raise or bury. Gehn didn’t really care which. Anna chooses the former, making a home with her grandson in a dormant volcano in the midst of the desert. Together they tease a garden from the reluctant earth, ration their precious water, and scavenge the surrounding area for anything they might sell to traders in exchange for salt, fabric, other necessities.

Through Anna’s lessons, Atrus learns what it takes to survive, even thrive. Her devotion seeds and tends his love and loyalty. Her stories hint at a past too fanciful to be real. Together, they eke a happy existence in the barren wasteland. Atrus begins to believe it will always be this way.

In his fourteenth year, his father returns, and Atrus’s world flips upside down. Now he must leave the desert, the only home he’s ever known, and his beloved grandmother for an unknown future with a strange, distant man. When Gehn leads Atrus up the face of the volcano and deep into its heart, Atrus begins to realize that his grandmother’s tales were true, that his own history is far more fantastic than he ever could have imagined.

The Book of Atrus is the first volume in a trilogy that covers the story of the D’ni, a subterranean race of builders, excavators, scientists and artisans who also happen to hold the amazing talent of Writing, that is, the art and science of writing Books that link to strange and fascinating Ages, worlds where anything can—and sometimes does—happen. Most fantasy writers in our own world create one, two, maybe three worlds at most in any given story. In The Book of Atrus, the Millers, together with Wingrove, have created a whole plethora of them. From the very beginning, their descriptions of Anna and Atrus’s home, the desert around them, and Atrus’s entire journey through the underground with Gehn, not to mention the various Ages, painted a clear and inviting picture that made me want to explore the D’ni tunnels for myself.

Characterizations also evoked emotions in me. I fell in love with Anna and Atrus immediately, and despised Gehn from the start. After Gehn’s reappearance, we don’t see much of Anna; I missed her and sympathized with her as I watched Atrus grow up without her guidance. Atrus does develop as a character, even if somewhat predictably. Gehn grows more despicable with the turning of every page. Although I could somewhat predict the ending, it was no less enjoyable because… Well. I can’t tell you that, now can I?

This is a story of Atrus’s coming of age, how he grows to manhood in the care of his father. But it’s also more than that. It’s a provocative tale of ethics and morality, and the ever-present struggle between personal gain and compassion for others, one which holds some relevance to events unfolding in our own world, in our own time. More than once I found myself comparing events in this tale to contemporary headlines, political and social sagas playing out all around me even as I read.

The Book of Atrus is probably not up to the most discriminating standards where fiction-writing is concerned. As I read, I heard lessons from my own editor and experienced writers echoing in my head (“never do this!”). Nonetheless, such “shortcomings” did not diminish my enjoyment of the tale one whit. I found The Book of Atrus to be an enjoyable adventure set in a visual world with provocative ethical dilemmas.

One thing to keep in mind as you read is that the Myst trilogy was written to the fan base of the wildly popular computer games Myst (released 1993), Riven (1997), Exile (2001), Revelation (2004), and End of Ages (2005). The Book of Atrus describes events that lead up to the first game. If you played any or all of these games, but haven’t yet read the books, you’re missing out. If you haven’t played, there is still plenty to recommend about this novel, though I suspect reading it may make you curious about the game, which I can’t recommend enough.

The Miller brothers and Mr. Wingrove have done a great job bringing the Myst universe to life in these pages. If you like fantasy that takes you to another world, The Myst trilogy is for you. Start here, with The Book of Atrus.