Published: 29th August 2011 by Text Publishing
Format: Paperback, 368 pages
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A mysterious apothecary. A magic book. A missing scientist. An impossible plan.
It’s 1952 and the Scott family has moved unexpectedly from Los Angeles to London. Janie feels uncomfortable in her strange new school, until the local apothecary promises her a remedy for homesickness. But the real cure is meeting the apothecary’s son Benjamin, a curiously defiant boy who dreams of becoming a spy.
Benjamin’s father is no ordinary apothecary, and when he’s kidnapped, Benjamin and Janie find themselves entrusted with his sacred book, the Pharmacopoeia. And it seems that Russian spies are intent on getting their hands on it.
What secrets does the book contain? Who is the Chinese chemist Jin Lo? And can they trust a skinny pickpocket called Pip to help them?
The Apothecary took me by surprise from the very first page. Masterfully crafted, beautifully illustrated, the book takes on an incredible journey with Janie and Benjamin, fourteen year old kids who become embroiled deadly plot involving espionage and the treat of atomic war in the Cold War. It is an unexpectedly delightful read, tackling serious issues such as family, war, loyalty and duty in a new and vivid context.
“My memories of what happened to me in 1952, when I moved to London from Los Angeles with my parents and met Benjamin Burrows for the first time aren’t perfect, for reasons I’ll explain in this book.”
Janie, our spunky protagonist is forced to move from Los Angeles to the alien London, where she meets the defiant Benjamin Burrows. They quickly become friends, and Janie learns that Benjamin is struggling to outgrow the expectations of his father, who is an apothecary. Benjamin doesn’t want to spend his life making potions and dispensing cures, he wants to be a spy. I liked both Janie and Benjamin, they both ring true to me as confused teens who want to find their place in the world. One of my favourite things about these characters is that, as children, they weren’t infallible. They recognised when they were in above their heads, and sought out help from adults around them. Although they are the stars of the story, they didn’t have unrealistic powers of deduction or instantly figure out how to do things, which I really liked. They also learnt quickly from their mistakes, so that they became more independent over the course of the book.
In the highly suspicious environment on London, Ben believes he has identified a spy for the Soviets, and he brings Janie along to one of his stake-out missions. This is the catalyst for their adventure, with Soviet spies, mysterious Germans and a league of alchemists coming to light. I think it’s an interesting and brave decision to set the book right in this time period; the rampant fear of atomic warfare, deep mistrust of Communism and constant vigilance the authorities make for a dark backdrop to this children’s adventure. I really like how the author gently and simply put everything into context for readers, and was able to examine the biggest issues of that time period with delicacy, and without ever disrupting the riveting action of the story.
I find the way that magic has been subtly infused into The Apothecary really clever – Benjamin’s father the apothecary is also an alchemist, and he introduces Janie and Benjamin to a world where invisibility and shape changing are entirely possible. I enjoyed Benjamin’s initial skepticism and scorn – of course matter has to be conserved, so how can people turn into birds without everyone being ostriches? I also love the author’s way of dealing with it, translating scientific laws into something magical.
The wonderful illustrations inside the book make it an absolute pleasure to read, and I love the attention to detail that has gone into it.
A well-balanced tale of magic and sleuthing, The Apothecary will be enjoyed by a wide-ranging audience despite it’s marketing as a children’s book. I enjoyed the heart-racing plot and the believable characters, and am looking forward to reading the sequel, The Apprentices, soon.