It’s 1952 and the Scott family has just moved from Los Angeles to London. Here, fourteen-year-old Janie meets a mysterious apothecary and his son, Benjamin Burrows—a fascinating boy who’s not afraid to stand up to authority and dreams of becoming a spy. When Benjamin’s father is kidnapped, Janie and Benjamin must uncover the secrets of the apothecary’s sacred book, the Pharmacopoeia, in order to find him, all while keeping it out of the hands of their enemies—Russian spies in possession of nuclear weapons. Discovering and testing potions they never believed could exist, Janie and Benjamin embark on a dangerous race to save the apothecary and prevent impending disaster. (from Goodreads)
I’ve become fond lately of YA books set during the Cold War, probably for the same reason that I’m so fond of YA book set during the Interwar period. Besides the fact that the books are excellently written, of course, the period between wars is always full of terrifying emotions and, if you’re lucky, some really great adventures. In The Apothecary we get all of that plus some wonderful characters and the “stranger in a strange land” thing I also adore.1
Janie is a great protagonist. Even ignoring that fact that she’s a GIRL, in the role that I think normally the boy character would occupy, I really adore her. She’s not snarky, she’s not headstrong, and she’s not really all that extraordinary, but she’s fantastic all the same. She acts like a real person would act in the sort of situations she gets into, and by that I mean she doesn’t pretend to be a superhero. She’s incredibly ordinary, and it works in her advantage.
Basically everybody is ordinary in The Apothecary. I think that might disappoint some readers, those readers who want characters to shine as brightly as a thousand suns instead of just one. But even one sun is still pretty bright, and is still able to do a lot of important things, and I think letting ordinary people have adventures is just as important as letting extraordinary ones do it.
Anyway, the ordinariness of the people really helped center the UN-ordinariness of the story, in my opinion. I mean, alchemists and magic and people turning into birds? It could have been really silly and like every other fantasy book out there, but because the people were, as I said, ordinary— well, it was a lot more effective. The magic actually felt like something special and weird, and getting that feeling in a world full of YA fantasy books is kind of rare.2
The story itself was a lot of fun, of course. It’s got spies and action and thriller-y moments, and there’s quite a few chase scenes that kept the excitement high. The beginning is a bit slow, but by the time Janie gets to England the pacing picks up and the story gets more dazzling.
There’s a tiny bit of romance, but for once it didn’t annoy me. I actually really liked it; it was completely adorable and totally in character, and though the ending was somewhat sad I didn’t really mind.
I think there’s going to be a sequel– I HOPE there’s a sequel, anyway!– and I can’t wait to read it. There’s a lot of possibilities for more adventures with Janie and her friends, and I’d really like to see them.
Read: October 4-5, 2011
The trailer is kind of neat:
Should I be mentioning if my books are signed or not? Well, anyway, this one is! I met MM at BEA and she was really nice and I loved her hair and she reminds me of someone I saw on TV once, though I can’t remember who.