It’s 1952. Janie is a regular 14-year-old American girl, living in Los Angeles… until she discovers that her parents are Communists, about to be arrested for un-American activities. The family flees to London.
Once there, Janie starts flirting with a boy in her class named Benjamin, and they embark on a mission to spy on a man that Benjamin thinks is a Russian agent. Only, the man he meets is Benjamin’s own father, the apothecary of the title.
From there, Benjamin and Janie begin a fairly typical young-adult-novel adventure: they follow clues, use newfound powers, and become embroiled in a massive conflict with no less than the world at stake.
It’s a familiar arc, and while Meloy writes it well, it’s a relatively forgettable novel. Except, that is, for one aspect, a facet of the mythos of The Apothecary that’s fairly original, but also quite uncomfortable. (Minor spoilers ahead. If you want to go in fresh, skip the rest of this. If you like Harry Potter and the Lemony Snicket books, you’ll probably like this one, as well.)
The odd facet has to do with Meloy’s chosen system of magic. It begins as herbology, a muddled herb in a cup of tea that makes the drinker tell the truth. But it quickly becomes proper magic, as Janie and co. receive a potion that will transmogrify them, temporarily, into birds.
The recipe for that potion, and for every other potion the apothecary can concoct, comes from a massive, centuries-old tome called the Pharmacoepia. That innocent detail makes a world of difference: it means that the magic contained in the Pharmacoepia is available to anyone who can read Latin. It means that Janie and Benjamin are not unique.
This means that the world of The Apothecary, and its magic, is more democratic. It also highlighta the fact that one of the great pleasures of this brand of YA book comes from being included, which means, it comes from excluding people. When you read Harry Potter, you get to be a wizard, instead of some frumpy old muggle. And not only that, you get to be among the most famous, most important wizards in the world. If everyone could use magic, the thrill of inclusion would wane significantly.
To make it more palatable, authors ensure that the exclusive group is oppressed somehow, or that they don’t want to be part of the exclusive group. Katniss Everdeen hates fighting in the Hunger Games, but without the status the Games afford her, she’s nothing but a gruntwork drone, slowly starving to death in backwater Appalachia.
There is no such status, and no exclusivity, in The Apothecary. The knowledge of the Pharmacoepia comes from millenia of tireless study on the parts of a long line of apothecaries and alchemists. The Pharmacoepia itself is nothing but a glorified cookbook. Without it, a few people might remember a few potions, but the bulk of the knowledge, the bulk of the magic, will be lost.
Similarly, the users of the Pharmacoepia are interchangeable. If it falls into the wrong hands, the bad guys can use it just as well as the good guys. If Janie and Benjamin get lost or die, two other children could easily take their places. Any two children, from anywhere. They don’t even really need the children.
This makes for some uncomfortable moments. For example, at the end of the book (it’s also mentioned on the very first page), Benjamin slips Janie an alchemical roofie that makes her forget the previous three weeks, which is how long she’s been in London. She forgets all about the good guys and their fight against the bad guys. More unnervingly, she drops out of the alchemical brotherhood and instantly she’s just a regular girl again.
Knowledge of the Pharmacoepia is the only thing that ever makes her special, and because that knowledge can so easily be erased, so too can her specialness. It’s a weird, slippery philosophy for a YA book to be founded on. Meloy, for better or worse, never puts the replaceability of her heroes at the novel’s center, so it can easily be forgotten or ignored. But without it, The Apothecary is a fun but forgettable novel.
Similar books: The Hunger Games series, by Suzanne Collins; the Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling; the Unfortunate Events series, by Lemony Snicket; the Flavia de Luce series, by Alan Bradley