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.
I loved everything about this book. I almost want to read it again for the sheer pleasure of it. It is the type of book you read slowly to savour every moment because you get hooked from the very first page.
The entire book from start to finish is unlike anything I have ever read before. Alchemy is intertwined with the threat of nuclear warfare present in the 1950s. Sure, there is a lot of suspension of belief, but somehow it all came together in a compelling story. The novel starts with a mystery that soon becomes an adventure filled with double crossing agents and stolen intelligence. I never knew what would happen next and enjoyed watching the plot unfold with every passing page.
The characters are all very memorable. I love Janie, Benjamin and Pip’s friendship, and their romantic relationships were adorable. There are some of the usual themes of being the new girl, family estrangements and first loves but they never overpowered the rest of the story. In fact, The Apothecary is a study in balance between character development and plot – one develops the other and both move the story along.
The magic gives a magical atmosphere to the entire story. The book feels wondrous and dream-like even when there is no magic present. I love the spells they used and the fact that it is science, not hocus pocus, that make them work.
The book has a dark side as well which gave the story weight. There is a murder, suspected kidnappings, the threat of an atomic war, and potential deportations. At times, it is humorous or heartfelt, but is always filled with suspense and an underlying sense of urgency.
The ending was sad and I hated it as much as I loved it. When I finished, I was under the impression that it was a standalone and the last section almost made me tear up. It ends off hopeful for the future, but if I were in Janie’s position I’d be very upset.
To all fans of middle grade, this is a must read. Even if you don’t usually like middle grade, this novel is mature enough to satisfy young adult fans as well. The Apothecary is a lovely, captivating story and I desperately want the sequel.