Award Winners, Fantasy, Good Books for Boys, Historical Fiction, Magic, middle grade, Mystery, Uncategorized

Nancy Drew and the Cold War: The Apothecary Review


I love all things apothecarial, I always have. Something about creating poultices, potions, and magic out of earthly elements has always appealed to the latent pagan in me. Maile Meloy’s middle grade novel is billed as Nancy Drew meets Harry Potter, and while this was more far more Nancy than Harry, it’s a fairly accurate comp.

When Janie Scott’s screenwriting parents uproot her from her LA existence and move to a dingy flat in London, she is less than impressed. But then she befriends the son of the local apothecary, a handsome boy who spends his free time practicing to be a spy. On one of their practice missions they stumble upon a legitimate case of espionage involving an ancient book of magic. Suddenly instead of pretending to spies, Janie and Ben are caught up in an international and age-old caper.

The mix of Cold War drama and old-school alchemy is unusual but totally works. The spunk and energy of Meloy’s prose feels very old-fashioned (hence the Nancy Drew comp) and yet her relationships feel modern.  Janie is a delightful protagonist, a smart girl who prefers pants to skirts and is doing her best to keep her feelings for her partner in crime hidden.  This becomes exceedingly difficult in a particularly memorable scene in which Janie and Benjamin test a truth serum by asking each other who they like. As you can imagine, the excruciatingly awkward scene that follows is classic middle grade.

There is a murder fairly early on in the book, and instead of being a convenient catalyst or plot device, both Janie and Ben are thrown by the crime. In very action-packed adventure stories often heinous crimes happen and the characters move on fairly unscathed emotionally, though perhaps determined to avenge/seek justice for the crime.  In The Apothecary a good deal of time and thought is given to Janie’s emotional reaction to the murder. The mystery isn’t purely fun- it’s a matter of life and death. I appreciated how Meloy dipped into her character’s emotional reactions to the events and considered the logistics of being an adventurer (do you call the police? How do you tell your parents, who you love, that you’re heading to Russia in bird-form to stop a nuclear disaster?)


The classic feel to this story is heightened by the book’s gorgeous design, which includes spot illustrations and a dreamy, chalky cover by Ian Schoenherr. The sequel, The Apprentices, is recently out and by all accounts shaping up to be just as engrossing and delightful. Fans of  traditional fantasy and Shannon Hale, the Septimus Heap books, and The Mother-Daughter Book Club series will champion Janie and Ben.

The Apothecary is available in paperback now from Penguin Canada.

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