1950's, apothecaries, Apothecary, book reviews, children's books, fantasy, historical fantasy, historical fiction, Maile Meloy, mature narrators, McCarthyism, MG fantasy, MG fiction, middle grade, middle grade fantasy, middle grade fiction, middle grade historical, mystery, post World War II, The Apothecary, World War II
I was seven and living in Los Angeles when Japan surrendered at the end of World War II, and my first vivid memories are of how excited and happy everyone was.
“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. Together with Ian Schoenherr’s breathtaking illustrations, this is a truly stunning package from cover to cover.”
I really enjoyed The Apothecary; it was an excellent middle grade novel that drew me in almost immediately, with beautiful prose and descriptions, as well as gorgeous illustrations to accompany the text. It didn’t really feel like a middle grade novel though; it was more young adult, and the narrator (for once) felt mature for her age, fourteen. I liked that, actually, as I find middle grade fiction too simplistic sometimes. I was pleasantly surprised; it’s a book with all the best elements: magic, a mysterious old book, a rebel, historical detail, an intelligent narrator, beautiful illustrations and atmosphere, and a move to a strange new place (in this case, England). There was a lot of great stuff, and plus, I really loved the font. It’s weird, but if a book has nice looking font then I just enjoy it so much more.
The writing drew me in, and the story was a really great and creative one. I loved Janie, who actually felt like a fourteen year old rather than someone younger. That happens a lot, particularly when I read middle grade books. The narrator feels way too young (like in A Mango Shaped Space) and that makes me enjoy the book less. In this case, I loved Janie and how she copes with all the strange, new things in her life. She’s highly intelligent, witty, and conscious of the world around her. The story and writing were also richly atmospheric, with the black and white illustrations and talk of apothecaries. And anti-Communism; the reason Janie’s parents move to England is subtle accusations of Communism back in America. Not a period I’m particularly proud of, but this is the first children’s book I’ve read that mentions it at all.
The fantasy element of The Apothecary doesn’t come in until later; at first it just seems like a fun historical fiction novel. But I knew the magic was coming having read the summary, and obviously because the cover reads “a dose of magic can save the world.” Plus, Janie’s had the weird feeling of being followed ever since the beginning of the book, and it’s not just the agents who suspect her parents of Communism; it’s something much more sinister. Exactly what, I was eager to find out. The real mysteries begin when Benjamin’s father is kidnapped, but not before leaving his precious book, the Pharmacopoeia, to Benjamin and Janie. The story definitely picks up after that, but overall the pace is pretty slow, and I liked that. There was a lot of great magic too, with people turning into birds, muting spells, and truth spells. Plus espionage.
Side-note: Why does middle grade fiction always get amazing covers? Most middle grade books have covers that are at least passable, and many that are lovely and fit the book perfectly, whether they’re wacky, mysterious, creepy, or just beautiful. Sure there are some decent and even really nice YA covers out there (like the gorgeous Chaos of Stars), but there are so many that feature hideously perfect models (Requiem) and covers that practically stamp them as “junky teen fiction” or some variant of that. The genre does itself a kind of disservice, I think. Middle grade covers actually have nice illustrations and covers, attempting to actually attract readers. And I know, there’s the old adage “don’t judge a book by its cover”, but let’s face it: everyone does to some extent. There are so many books out there, and sometimes one has to judge a book based on the cover and a quick peek at the plot summary.
Anyway, that didn’t have a whole lot to do with The Apothecary, except that it’s a middle grade novel with a pretty nice cover. The story is really good too. I would recommend The Apothecary for those looking for a smart read where the narrator actually seems like her age. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel when it comes out in paperback.