The Apothecary, Book 1

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
The Apothecary, Book 1 Book Poster Image
Popular with kids
Cold War kids use magic to save world in brilliant novel.

Parents say

age 12+
Based on 2 reviews

Kids say

age 10+
Based on 22 reviews

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A lot or a little?

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

Educational Value

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.

Positive Messages

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 & Representations

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.


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.


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.

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.

What 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.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Parent Written bylefthandedink June 22, 2017

A bit too much romance

The story is so wonderful. BUT, the author kept describing how the main character felt (tingles down her spine, etc.) while being next to or in physical contact... Continue reading
Adult Written byjmaa September 14, 2018

The Best Book Series Ever!!!

This series is even better than Harry Potter-and I am a huge Harry Potter fan. This series is the best because of the feelings it gives me. I seriously felt emo... Continue reading
Teen, 14 years old Written bymirkat April 17, 2020

"Allow for the Possibilities": A Historical, Scientific, and Magical Book

I just read this book (not to mention the whole series) for the 2nd time about a week ago. There is nothing inappropriate whatsoever besides an innocent kiss.... Continue reading
Kid, 12 years old November 10, 2019

Amazing book!

This book is amazing! I love it because of the magic. It isn't one of those magic books that don't make sense. This book is even better than the Harry... Continue reading

What's the story?

It's 1952, and 14-year-old Janie Scott is abruptly uprooted from her freshman year in high school in sunny Los Angeles when her parents, blacklisted Hollywood writers, flee to cold, gray postwar London. The kindly local apothecary gives her a free prescription for homesickness; his son Benjamin, who has no interest in the family business and wants to be a spy, is the most interesting thing about her horrible new school. The two are suddenly thrown together when Benjamin's father is apparently kidnapped by German-speaking thugs, but not before he has locked the two teens in the basement with a 700-year-old book and instructions to protect it. The book contains centuries of secrets of how to manipulate matter. Many adventures, transformations, and strange developments ensue, in which Janie, Benjamin and their friends are called upon not only to save Benjamin's father but also to prevent the Soviets from exploding their first atomic bomb.

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.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the scary issues of the Cold War, particularly as they appeared to kids growing up at the time, and how they might be similar to today's issues of terrorism -- and manipulated in similar ways. The story offers numerous examples of havoc wrought by naive political beliefs of various stripes, yet lets readers draw their own conclusions.

  • This book introduces numerous ethical balancing acts, such as when Janie has to lie to her parents to explain the absence of Benjamin's father. She doesn't have much choice. In real life, when might it really be the right thing for a 14-year-old to lie to parents about what's going on with a friend?

  • Would you like to go to school at a place like St. Beden's? What's better or worse about it than your school?

  • Have you been to London? How is it the same as in the book? How is it different?

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