In the category of YA fantasy novels set in England I would give The Apothecary by Maile Meloy a generous four out of five stars. I say generous because while the story moves along crisply the author does employ many fantasy and YA cliches. She also relies heavily on deus ex machina several times but most especially to tie up the story in a neat bow. Most children would not notice these problems and in many ways they keep the narrative light and refreshing. On the other hand I can’t help but think that avoidance of these issues could have turned a great premise into a book that would linger in the minds of the reader long after they finished it.
That being said Meloy should be commended for her choice in making the novel a work of historical fiction. Although some reviewers might take her to task over her simplified descriptions of socialism and communism I think the writing allows the reader to stay in the moment of the narrative rather than be jarred out of the mood by reading dry text. This is very important when writing for preteens to which the story is geared. Kids won’t even realize that they are learning something as they zoom their way through Janie’s adventures.
Janie is a very sympathetic and brave heroine who is loved deeply by both of her parents which is refreshing in a sea of YA literature full of orphaned children. Benjamin is loyal and likable. Pip is full on rapscallion. The Apothecary himself is mysterious, humble, and compassionate. The villains are somewhat cliched but move the story along quite nicely.
The artwork here is also stunning. Ian Schoennher does a great job of summing up the essence of each chapter simply and concisely. The use of light and shadow in the monochromatic artwork manages to not only convey mystery and danger but also friendship and happiness.
This would be a great book to introduce children to fantasy literature.