Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Apothecary by Maile Maloy


There’s something completely irresistible about the intersection of alchemy, speculative fiction, and history. Maile Maloy’s The Apothecary is one of those books.  It manages to bring them together in a way that is always smart, often intriguing, occasionally funny, and altogether engaging.

Set in 1952, at the beginning of the Cold War and the Red Scare in America, The Apothecary opens with Janie Scott’s family repatriating from California to London, England.  But it’s not the story of Janie Scott’s family.  It’s the story of Benjamin Burrows and his father, “The Apothecary.”  The Apothecary is more than just a pharmacist; he’s an alchemist who is working with some of the best (and most subversively underground) scientists of his time to bring together ancient magic and science in the name of protecting the world from nuclear annihilation.

This doesn’t sound like a fun book, but somehow it is.  It’s a race against time with death, and peril, and intrigue, with good dashes of Dickensian humor, spies, and invisibility potions bringing it all together.  Maloy weaves a story that is hard to put down, and makes re-entry into the mundane world just a little difficult. There’s a touch of Harry Potter, a sprinkle of Jeeves, and a wee dash of Jasper Fforde for good measure.  If you, or a boy you know, enjoys magical realism, The Apothecary is an excellent choice.

What worked:

The plot was well-developed and compelling.
The characters were well-drawn and mostly realistic.
The pacing moves quickly without feeling hurried.

What worked less well:

Some stereotyping.
Space limitations—the book could have been longer, and some scenes would have benefitted from further exposition (note: I’m not a fan of lengthy exposition, so requesting more of it is kind of a big deal).

Compulsive readability: 7/10. I had some trouble getting into the first few pages, but once I was into it, I was INTO it.

Audience: Middle School


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