Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Alchemyst, by Michael Scott

This is one for the mother-daughter book club for Bunny's 7th grade friends. This particular title was selected by one of the daughters, rather than one of the mothers, and it shows. Unlike some other magic books (*cough* Harry Potter *cough*), this one simply does not hold up to adult reading.

Fifteen year old twins Josh and Sophie are spending a summer in San Francisco while there parents are on an archaeological dig. Hoping to save up enough money to buy a car, the twins have landed summer jobs across the street from each other. Josh works at a bookstore run by Nick and Perry Fleming; Sophie works at the coffee shop.

One day (specifically May 31), a small gray man enters the bookshop followed by two VERY large overcoated body guards. The gray man is Dr. John Dee, and he is searching for the book that holds all the secrets of all magic, and he knows it is in the bookshop.

Soon, mad magic breaks out: the Flemings are revealed to be Nicholas and Perenelle Flamel, who have been guarding the Book of Abraham the Mage for over 500 years, using the knowledge inside to brew an immortality potion, and to create gold and diamonds for their financial needs. Dee wants the book for nefarious purposes involving something called "the Dark Elders." In only a few pages, Dee has grabbed the book, Josh has managed to retain the final two (and most important) pages of it, Perenelle is captured by Dee, and Nicholas, Josh and Sophie are on the run.

The rest of the book is more or less what I call a "run and gun." Dee poses a threat, the kids run, they find a temporary refuge, Dee finds them again, the kids run, ad infinitum. At least, it felt infinitum--it's a remarkably turgid book that runs on for 369 pages, and yet fails to generate any suspense or character development. You could summarize the book like this:

Part One: "Oh no! Golems! Run! " Magical battle ensues, and book store is destroyed.

Part Two: "Oh no! Rats! Run!" Magical battle ensues, dojo is destroyed.

Part Three: "Oh no! Crows! Run!" Crows attack our heroes on the Golden Gate bridge, SUV is destroyed.

Part Four: "Oh no! Crows AND cats! Run!" Magical battle ensues, gigantic Tree of the World is destroyed.

Part Five: "Oh no! Animated skeletons! Run!" Magical battle ensues, quaint antique store is destroyed.

The book ends with the twins and Flamel escaping to France through use of ley lines and a mirror. There is no resolution at all, merely a set up to the next of what is promised to be a six book series.

While on the run, the kids and Flamel run into mythic beings from all over the world: Golems, Hekate (Greece), Scathach (Ireland), the Morrigan (Scotland); the Witch of Endor (Bible), Bastet (Egypt), Yggdrisil (Norse legend), and probably some more I have forgotten. Few of these are explained or given any real context--Scott seems to be operating on the principle that YA readers will already recognize all these characters. If I had already been familiar with these, I think the story might have had more depth or resonance. As it is, why are Hekate, Scathach and the Witch of Endor "good" guys, while Bastet and the Morrigan are "bad?" How do they end up on the sides they end up on? Scott doesn't tell us, nor is there much help in myth either.

There is one moment of some suspense near the end of the book. Sophia has had her magical powers Awakened, but a magical battle erupted before Josh could do the same. Dee spots this as a vulnerability, and he approaches Josh and tells a plausible story that casts himself as the good guy and Flamel as the criminal. Josh doesn't know quite what to believe, but then Sophie shows up and grabs him by the hand and the decision is made. Way to spoil any sense of ambiguity and foreboding!

There are inconsistencies in the storytelling as well. The Flamels have to drink the immortality potion each month, or they begin aging--one year for every day they don't have the potion. Presumably, they would have taken the potion on June 1, but can't because Dee intruded. So how come by the end of that day, both the Flamels are visibly gaining wrinkles, losing hair, and becoming more frail? One year doesn't do that!

Flamel variously claims that he has spent 500 years studying the magic book, and also claims that he hasn't studied anything but the potion and gold-making parts. Despite having been on the run from Dee for most of those 500, Flamel hasn't tried to learn any magic or defensive spells, while Dee has apparently spent most of those same 500 years doing just that. Why would Nicholas Flamel be so unconcerned with the threat Dee poses, and yet spend 500 years hiding from him?

Finally--because I have to stop some time--despite being called "The Alchemyst," there is no alchemy in the book. There is a great deal of using the power of one's aura to do magic, and some brief discussion of "elemental magic," but no science of alchemy. In fact, Nicholas Flamel is so generic that he could be any Hollywood blockbuster hero, rather than the learned and scholarly man one would suppose him to be. I keep seeing him as Nicholas Cage--perhaps from the National Treasure movies--smart, yes. Capable of great physical effort? Yes. Demonstrating one iota of intellectual curiosity? Not so much. Really, there is no way you could believe that he had spent hundreds of years reading and studying--he's really no smarter than the dopey twins he's running around with.

Some reviews and press tout this series as a fit successor to the Harry Potter books. I disagree. And the proof of that? Despite the complete lack of any resolution what so ever at the end of this book, I have absolutely NO desire to pick up the second one.

1 comment:

Hyacinth Marius said...

Great book. Exciting until the end! I couldn't put it down. Whoever you are reading reviews wondering if you should read this book...stop wondering and do it. You won't regret it.
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