Maile Meloy
(Andersen Press)

When  14 year-old Janie has to move unexpectedly and abruptly from sunny California to London, she is not expecting it to be fun, despite her parents’ best efforts to convince her otherwise. When she gets there, she finds it dull and cold, and school rules are unfamiliar. But soon she meets Benjamin, who dreams of becoming a spy. When he enrols Janie in helping him spy on people, he cannot foresee that he will end up spying on his own father, an apothecary, who disappears, entrusting the two teenagers with his ancient book of spells and potions. They must use it to save the apothecary, while all the while protecting it from the Russian secret service.

Part fantasy, part historical, The Apothecary has all the ingredients needed for a great story: spies, secrets,dirty tricks, magic spells, and disobeying one’s parents. All combine well to create a great mystery adventure, in which the reader is witness to Janie’s life being turned upside down soon after arriving in London. The story is pacy and keeps the reader guessing throughout. The eclectic range of characters Janie and Benjamin come across during the adventure is particularly entertaining.

Though first and foremost and magical fantasy book, there are some very interesting historical elements: the infancy of McCarthyism, post-war London, the Nuclear Arms race and the development of the Cold War. The author captures the mood of post-war London perfectly: the still-fresh memories of the Blitz, still the tail end of rationing, the paranoia about a potential Nuclear war. This is such an interesting part of history, and its feeling on uncertainty are conveyed perfectly. The avian elixir, which allows you to turn into a bird and get a taste of the purest form of freedom (being able to fly) is particularly symbolic in that context. But don’t be fooled into thinking that all is clear-cut and that the Russians are the baddies and the Americans and British the heroes. Heroism and deceit can happen on both sides.

The black and white artwork, similar to Brian Selznick’s, is a real bonus and definitely helps set the atmosphere.

The Apothecary is very enjoyable book and which will delight readers who enjoy a unusual, and magical read.

Source: review copy from publisher