The After-Room: The Apothecary Series, Book 3

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
The After-Room: The Apothecary Series, Book 3 Book Poster Image
Love, magic, adventure, ghosts in thrilling series finale.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

The conflict over the islands of Quemoy and Matsu is important to the story. History fans will revel in the evocative period detail, including the aftereffects of McCarthyism on people's lives, plus prom dresses, pop music, movies (especially Roman Holiday), 1950s travel, international intrigue, the ill-fated ship the Andrea Doria, and lots more. With parts of the story taking place in China and Italy, local landmarks, language, and customs play a key role, as do tantalizing glimpses into the world of glittery movie premieres. Science, especially nuclear physics and chemistry, is essential to the plot and to several characters. Janie's parents are writers, so the whole family talks about literature and authors a lot.

Positive Messages

Much discussion of high moral concepts, especially about going to heroic lengths to protect your loved ones, and often the whole world, from harm. The story offers strong messages about courage and persistence and how having a network of allies helps ensure you've got just the right talent to deal with the crisis at hand.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Characters, especially Janie and Benjamin, often take crazy risks, from ingesting potions and talking with the dead to dealing with gangsters and spies, in the course of trying to save the world. And if their adult mentor Jin Lo is almost ruthlessly single-minded in pursuing their mission, the teens, Janie in particular, often grapple with how heroic tasks seem hazardous to normal human relationships, but they aren't swayed from their responsibilities. Janie's screenwriter parents are more than a bit ditsy, but they're also fiercely devoted to their daughter and kindhearted in taking in now-orphaned Benjamin.

Violence

In the course of trying to avert nuclear catastrophe, teen and adult characters face constant peril and encounter numerous enemies willing to kill them, from spies and rogue soldiers to Italian gangsters. Characters are held captive more than once. Along the way, they also enlist the aid of the dead, from Benjamin's recently deceased father to the 19th-century poet John Keats. In a memorable scene, hordes of restless ghosts descend on 1955 Rome. A hit-and-run accident severely injures one character; it's suggested that another was devoured by sharks. A poignant, slightly creepy illustration depicts Keats' death mask.

Sex

Teens in love manage to kiss occasionally despite interruptions and plot twists; one kiss has a powerful healing effect.

Language

Adult character, a Navy officer, refers to "a pain in my ass."

Consumerism

Several real-life products and companies from 1955 -- for example, Studebaker and Italy's Cinecittà studios, where they're making movies to this day. References to the movie Roman Holiday and its star Audrey Hepburn.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Characters constantly brew and consume magic potions, whose effects include telepathy, language proficiency, and transformation into birds. An adult character who's stalking the kids is an alcoholic whose girlfriend has left him over his drinking.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The After-Room concludes the imaginative Apothecary trilogy, in which two teens join adult allies in an ancient magical society to save the world from nuclear destruction in 1955. Characters regularly face great danger from assorted bad guys, including spies, gangsters, and pirates; they're often held prisoner, and one of them is the victim of a hit-and-run. As in previous books, they frequently brew and ingest potions, whose effects include telepathy and shape-shifting, and, in a new development, they converse with the dead, including the poet John Keats. The teen protagonists share a few sweet kisses amid the dangers; two adults meet and eventually marry. An adult character who causes a lot of trouble is a problem drinker.

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What's the story?

It's 1955, and after the harrowing events in Book 2, 15-year-olds Janie Scott and Benjamin Burrows (who's living with the Scott family since his father's death left him an orphan) are trying to adjust to a normal Midwestern high school. It isn't going well, and their romance seems to be on hold, as Benjamin's always depressed and preoccupied. When he confesses to Janie that he's been using a potion to communicate with his late father, who seems to be in a between-the-worlds place called THE AFTER-ROOM, the 15-year-olds realize their adventures aren't over. Soon, thanks to a surprise offer of a screenwriting gig in Rome for the elder Scotts, they're all in Italy, trying to evade sinister forces who'd like to use Benjamin's brews for their own purposes. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, their chemist friend Jin Lo, who'd plunged into the sea when the potion that turned her into a bird wore off, washes up on an island occupied by a U.S. Navy officer who's watching the Chinese. From their different points on the globe, they all work to prevent the uranium stolen in Book 2 from falling into the wrong hands and to keep a grief-stricken man from nuking China to avenge his son's death.

Is it any good?

Author Maile Meloy's imaginative mix of magic, Cold War history, and teen romance comes to a satisfying close as two 15-year-olds and their adult allies face spies, gangsters, pirates, and the dead. Told from the perspectives of characters on opposite sites of the world, the plot moves along quickly as the heroes encounter colorful locals, dodge deadly perils, pursue magical knowledge, and learn a few life lessons while trying to avert nuclear destruction. Thanks to Meloy's skill as a writer, characters are intriguing individuals; normally implausible plot developments such as the Scotts' sudden writing job in Italy make perfect sense; and bits of incidental detail such as a song and a robin's-egg-blue dress conjure up the feeling of life in the '50s. Ian Schoenherr's plentiful illustrations bring the story to life with compelling detail and airborne adventure.

There's enough description of foregoing events that you won't be entirely lost if you start here, but you'll miss a lot. Start with Book 1. And, though the story arc wraps up nicely at the end, there's a glimmer of hope that we may not have seen the last of these characters.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about stories that mix history with magic. Which other ones do you know? Do you think that makes a more interesting story than pure fact or pure fantasy?

  • Do you think you'd have liked living in the '50s? What do you think would be better? What do you think might be better now?

  • What seems like magic to one generation often proves to be science for another. If someone from another era landed in our world, how would that person view technology we take for granted? What would seem magical, and what would make sense?

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