I was perhaps in need for comfort reads this fall (guess what, international news haven’t been exactly forgiving, and this is the high season at work too), as I turned towards a few middle grade novels.
Actually, I am sucker for good cover art and so many YA / middle grade novels these days have outstanding covers, that make me immediately want to pick them. I was attracted towards the Apothecary by the historical setting, London in the early 1950s, during the Cold War, but still feeling the deep scars from the war.
In this particular era, Communist spies and atomic bombs are feared everywhere, but particularly in California where Janie’s parents work as screenwriters. They are pressured to go find work in London, and 14-year-old Janie goes to a traditional English school with uniforms and Latin classes. She finds her classmate Benjamin charming, but also intriguing, and he soon brings her into crazy adventures, as it turns out that Benjamin’s father is a sort of wizard who has been abducted by Russian spies.
I liked the premises but I wasn’t quite convinced by the story. Things were a bit all over the place, and only the swift pace of actions and twists tried to make up for unexplained bits of plot. This being the first of a series, it might be due to some revelation in later episodes, but I wasn’t grabbed by Janie and the characters were too one-dimensional. Also, the figure of the Chinese chemist came out so stereotypical (kungfu moves! inscrutable stare! pseudo-Chinese pidgin French –I read in translation) that I rolled my eyes every single time she appeared. The mix between scientifical, historical, and fantasy elements seemed very clunky to me. I would have preferred that the author stick to one genre, and make it more believable and more consistent.
Well, can’t win them all! I should know by now that a nice cover does not make a good novel every single time.