Tag Archives: Meloy

The Apprentices

Apprentices for labels

I did not realize that there would be a sequel to The Apothecary, so was thrilled to see The Apprentices.  I read the first about a year ago, so quickly re-read to review, then dove into the follow-up.

The story picks up two years after we left the apothecary and his band of magic wielding fighters-of-all-Cold-War-evil.  Janie is at boarding school in New Hampshire, and Benjamin travels through the Far East with his father, treating the injured in the jungles of Vietnam.  Benjamin also experiments with a magical formula to help him communicate with Janie; it works, but has unintended side effects that threaten their safety.  Pip is a television star in London, and Jin Lo returned to China to confront the ghosts of her past.

Janie studies chemistry at Grayson Academy, trying to perfect Jin Lo’s small scale desalination project.  She is kicked out for “cheating” on a math test, which sets in motion a complicated turn of events that threatens world peace in an already unstable time.  We meet old friends and enemies, and new characters that weave the story together across the globe.

Much the same as in the first book, there is Cold War intrigue and mystery, culminating in a James Bond-esque rescue on the private island of a mildly psychotic billionaire with world domination pretensions.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, the illustrations in this book added multiple chapters to the story.  Illustrator Ian Schoenherr brings the story alive so beautifully, you can almost understand the plot from his sketches alone.

Meloy’s voice in this book is slightly more frenetic, and less about the discovery and wonder that drew me to The Apothecary.  There, there were possibilities and anything could happen.  The plot drew me in and I believed.  This magical understanding was not so present in the sequel.  Meloy knew where she wanted to go with the story, but seemed unsure how to get there.

The story switches from continent to continent; there was trans-Atlantic and Pacific travel, new characters jump in and out of the story without the reader being sure of their ultimate purpose.  The original characters don’t seem to take on any new dimensions; maybe because so little of the book sees them together, we lose out on the wonderful chemistry they all had as they fought to save the world in The Apothecary.

In the end, I liked The Apprentices, but did not love it the way I did the first instalment.  It was good, not great.  But big points for having heroes and heroines in fairly equal numbers; it is appealing to boys and girls both.  As with the first, it is appropriate for all ages.

The Apprentices is published by The Penguin Group.

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The Apothecary

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“A dose of magic can save the world.”  I didn’t write that, it’s the subtitle of the book.  But it encapsulates the entire story in those eight little words better than I can in 500.  My work here is done.

Which, of course, is total and utter crap.  I love to talk about any book, even if someone else can say it more eloquently than I.  So talk I will.

The Apothecary is fantasy and magic.  Maile Meloy makes turning into a bird and running invisible (and naked) through post-war London completely believable.  Of course smelling an herb which was picked at noon (solar, not the one we see on the clock), then ground and brewed into a tea will make you incapable of lying.  And haven’t we all seen an invisible polymer net contain a nuclear explosion?  Alchemy at its best.

It is the mid-1950s, and Janie and her television writer parents have fled the United States for England, under threat of interrogation for Communist ideals.  London is a stark change for 14 year old Janie; used to the sunny beaches and excesses of California life, she has trouble adjusting to the still-rationed food and clothing of a London that bears the physical and psychological scars of WWII.

Meeting Benjamin helps.  Janie notices the intelligent, engaging and authority-challenging would-be spy at her new school, and follows him home, just to learn more about him.  He is the son of the local apothecary, who, it turns out, is more than that.  Mr. Burrows is the latest in an ancient family of alchemists who work for kings and labour to save the world.  He guards the Pharmacopoeia, the leather bound bible containing the research and notes of 700 years of family study and experimentation in the healing arts. It must be kept out of enemy hands.

What follows is a Cold War spy thriller with teenage protagonists whose mission it is to help save the world from nuclear destruction.  Without their parents’ approval or knowledge, of course.

Meloy employs meticulous research and a great sense of humour throughout this completely captivating story.  It has scientific interest and Cold War mystique, and while I cannot say whether or not the author’s use of alchemy is accurate, it is intriguing.  There is great wonder and discovery in this novel, something that is lacking in so many stories.

Meloy’s character development is perfect.  Janie is a modern girl in post-war times, and the relationship between her and Benjamin is real and believable.  I laughed at the testing of the truth serum, and cringed on behalf of them both.  Pip and Sarah were great additions, although they were a bit more predictable than I would have liked, given the rest of the novel.  The resolution to the story is surprising and suspenseful.

Everyone, no matter his or her age, who wants to allow for the possibilities, should read this book.

The Apothecary is published by Puffin Books.