Title: The Apothecary
Author: Maile Meloy
Janie is a teenager when her parents suddenly uproot her from her comfortable California life to live in London. America at the start of the Cold War is paranoid about Communists and to even be suspected of sympathizing one draws unwanted government attention. But in London she runs across Benjamin Burrows, the son of an apothecary who might be more than ordinary. And when Janie befriends Benjamin, she ends up in the middle of an international conspiracy.
I’m not sure what exactly about this book turns me off. Perhaps the more literary flavor of it. As a period piece it works quite well painting the atmosphere and environment of America and England post-WWII, where things are better than they were but still suffering from the effects of the war. Janie’s awkwardness at being a transfer student is compounded by the rush with which her family moved and the accusation that they are tied to Communists. The sole Russian kid in her class gets it even worse than she does. And the book does a great job at pointing out the stupidity engendered by fear: “bomb drills” that have students hiding under tables for protection against nuclear bombs.
As a fantasy I have more problems with the worldbuilding. Why can a potion that turns someone into a bird include clothes but one that turns someone invisible not? (For the record I am more in favor of both not transforming clothes as it makes more sense, even though I really don’t care for “hey we’re both undressed and this is really awkward” scenes that result.) Also, the attempt to balance the “science” nature with the magic didn’t work that well for me. It felt like brewing a potion to turn someone into a bird ought to be harder than an overnight gig with the materials conveniently on hand. Basically the magic felt slapped together without much thought beyond “this would be cool.” There’s no sense of what rules govern it.
And I found the end—the ultimate purpose of stopping a nuclear bomb—a bit silly. Despite being told that Benjamin’s father and some cohorts have been working on this for years, the actual execution isn’t much. And after the relatively low-key adventures thus far (outwitting a total of two menacing probably-spies who show up more than once), to suddenly go to stopping a nuclear bomb . . . It didn’t work for me. It was too much a magic wand solution. It was too big a shift in tone. The buildup was like a low-angled incline and suddenly the fate of the world is in the balance? Not to mention the bad guys never change their focus—they’re still pursuing the bomb at the end even though they ought to have realized the secret of changing people into birds is far more valuable (for espionage, if nothing else).
Not to mention Janie should have known better than to drink that champagne after it was all settled. Especially after she tried exactly the same trick on someone previously.
So overall this one isn’t bad, but I had to force myself to finish. I rate this book Neutral.