It's 1952 and 14-year-old Janie's parents have just been blacklisted, which means a move for the whole family from Los Angeles to London. Janie experiences major culture shock - not only is post-war London gray, cold and drab, but also they have to put pennies in a meter just to heat their flat, there is still rationing, and the students at her new school are learning Latin.
Mostly, the students seem fairly snobby, but one boy, Benjamin, appeals to Janie. Intense and defiant, he wants to be a spy, not an apothecary like his father - but his father, it turns out, is much more than a simple dispenser of drugs and medicaments. Rather, he is one in a long line of apothecaries who have guarded the hard-won secrets of herbal and medicinal lore, all of which have been written down in an old tome called the Pharmacopoeia.
The Soviets, aided by the East Germans, want to get their hands on these secrets and will stop at nothing, including torture and murder, to get them. Janie and Benjamin join forces with a small bunch of eccentric and brilliant scientists, plus a street-smart urchin named Pip, to preserve those secrets and save the world from the threat of nuclear war.
Clearly there are familiar elements here, with bits and pieces reminiscent of The Da Vinci Code, Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and Kane Chronicles series, Baccalario's Century Quartet series, and even N.D. Wilson's recent The Dragon's Tooth. Ancient knowledge must be kept out of the hands of the bad guys, and only a couple of intrepid kids and a few trustworthy adults can save the world from Evil.
So yes, it's been done before. But what makes this book stand out is the freshness and competence of the writing, which sparkles with both humor and warmth. Meloy has a gift for introducing a scene in just a few perfect sentences, giving us an immediate sense of both place and emotional resonance. Here is Janie describing her first day at school.
The school was in a stone building with arches and turrets that seemed very old to me but wasn't old at all, in English terms. It was build in 1880, so it was practically brand-new... Two teachers walking down the hall wore black academic gowns, and they looked ominous and forbidding, like giant bats. The students all wore dark blue uniforms with white shirts... I didn't have a unform yet, and wore my bright green Hepburn trousers and a yellow sweater, which looked normal in LA, but here looked clownishly out of place. I might as well have carried a giant sign saying I DON'T BELONG.Making Janie an American who finds herself in England means we get to experience all the foreignness of a different country along with her, and in addition the readers can see how different 1952 was, when the Soviet threat felt very immediate and kids had to take part in bomb drills at school.
This isn't supposed to be a fantasy; it's science, not magic, that creates all the fantastical effects. However, any potion that can turn children into birds or make them invisible counts as magic in my book, so let's call this a fantasy and not science fiction. After all, Benjamin becomes a starling while Janie becomes the very American red-breasted robin, which feels like a very magical touch.
The blossoming of romance between Janie and Benjamin is both sweet and age-appropriate, and makes the ending all the more bittersweet. And yet the end is satisfying and right, even if it's one few readers would hope for.
The plot is supremely far-fetched in almost every way, and the science or magic or whatever makes no sense whatsoever - and these are definitely flaws, when one considers the masterful plotting of a book like Stead's When You Reach Me. But they are only small imperfections when measured against the quality of the writing and the delight of Janie's adventures with Benjamin and the rest of her odd companions.
Highly recommended for ages 11 to 14.