A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
This book could serve as a launch pad for further investigation into chemistry, biology, physics, the history of the Cold War, Latin, Greek, the differences between the British and American educational systems. And because it's all seen through the often-incredulous eyes of teens caught up in a grand adventure, the subject matter seems intriguing rather than deadly.
Saving the world from untold disaster is, of course, a big win. But along the way the two main characters, Janie and Benjamin, learn a new appreciation for their parents' good (and in the case of Benjamin's father, heroic) qualities and perform many courageous feats of their own, sometimes at the risk of their own lives. They also sometimes make age-appropriate bad decisions and later realize that other events might have gone better had they chosen differently. The underlying message of allowing for the possibilities, which allows the book's magic to take place, is not a bad one, either.
Positive Role Models
The title character, kindly apothecary Marcus Burrows, who turns out to be considerably more than an mild-mannered London druggist, is a formidable force for good, both when it comes to protecting his son and when it comes to saving the world. There are other heroic members of his group, as well. Janie and Benjamin are loyal and brave, and also possessed of good critical thinking skills -- by the end of the book they've learned quite a lot, including a new appreciation of their parents. While Janie's parents have a ditzy Hollywood quality that doesn't seem quite so fun now that their politics have more or less forced the family to flee their home in the dead of night, it is also quite clear that she and they would walk through fire for each other, and they all know it.
Violence & Scariness
There is ominous Cold War stuff at a young-teen level. The story starts with Janie being followed around her neighborhood by men in a black car. It picks up with the apothecary in London being kidnapped by scary German-speaking thugs, and the murder of a gardener. Part of the plot hinges on the fact that the Soviets are holding someone's family members hostage and will kill them if he does not do as they say. Numerous bad guys are constantly after the protagonists with no good on their minds. In perhaps the scariest moment, Janie, who is transformed into a bird, is captured and held in the cap of one of the villains.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
Happy, innocent kissing. Also flustered consideration, amid dire peril, of the practical challenges of maintaining modesty while bathing naked in an invisibility potion in the presence of the opposite sex.
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Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Janie takes advantage of the fact that a neighbor lady who's supposed to be taking care of her is a serious drinker to make her escape on spy business.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that The Apothecary is an engaging, well-written story by an award-winning adult author who has successfully turned to a younger audience without simply dumbing down adult themes. Some social and ethical complexities may be a bit much for younger kids, e.g., the casual ruthlesslessness with which Janie and Benjamin are willing to try out a potion on their hapless classmate Sergei, the quandary of Sergei's father with his wife and daughter in the hands of his Soviet employers, and Pip's cheerfully thieving nature. Janie's parents are blacklisted Hollywood writers, and Meloy's excellent, evenhanded treatment of the subject might serve as an good introduction to the McCarthy era.
Is It Any Good?
This is a great book -- well written, deft in its handling of themes and issues, and full of characters who are engaging even as we see their flaws. The magic is handled in a matter-of-fact way, as just part of the landscape -- as the gardener says mildly to Benjamin early on, "You must allow for the possibilities" -- and it is all the more effective for taking place with a minimum of fuss. The story moves along at a fast pace; the characters are busy saving the world while dealing with common teen woes. There's a lot going on in this book, enough to reward more than one reading, and it's hard not to hope for a sequel. Luckily, one is in the works.
Did we miss something on diversity?
Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.