Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Review - "The Apprentices"

Sequels, while often hoped for, are tricky things. Working with preconceived notions of characters and situations can be daunting for an author. Sometimes, the old magic just isn’t there, and sometimes, you get something that strikes just the right balance of something old and something new. The Apprentices, Maile Meloy’s sequel to her 2011 middle grade debut The Apothecary gets the balance almost just right.

Two years have passed for Janie and Benjamin since the events of The Apothecary. Janie is in school in the U.S. and Benjamin is traveling the world with his father, trying to do good in troubled areas. Despite being memory drugged at the end of her previous adventure, Janie has recovered most of her memories, thanks to Benjamin’s forbidden and sometimes confusing communiques. She has even begun an experiment to recreate one of the alchemical recipes from the Pharmacopoeia, the desalinization of sea water. She is so close to achieving this goal, in fact, that she attracts some unwanted attention, and as a result, she is thrown out of school on trumped up charges, and her nearly completed experiment is stolen. What Janie doesn’t know, is that what the nefarious Mr. Magnusson really wants is not her experiment, but her friends, Benjamin and his father. Janie is bait. From here The Apprentices is a tight chase to the finish, with Benjamin trying everything in his power to reach Janie, and Janie trying everything in hers to keep Benjamin safe.

Adventure stories must have risk if they are going to succeed. If your heroes don’t stand to lose something, where is the danger? In Janie and Benjamin’s world, the risk is huge: nuclear fallout. It doesn’t get much bigger than that. In The Apothecary, the resourceful crew manages to contain a nuclear blast, and the baddies at work in The Apprentices are trying to make sure such a thing never happens again. Soviet spy and British traitor Mr. Danby is back, with new motives, but much the same goal. And Mr. Magnusson, the slightly slimy, island owning, kidnapping businessman is an effective villain. He’s just smart enough to be a serious problem.

If I had one problem with The Apprentices, it would be with the character of Pip. In The Apothecary, I was Pip’s defender. I was charmed by his Artful Dodger-ness, and found him a necessary relief from the doom and gloom. Here, however, Pip’s role is so marginalized as to be practically unnecessary. The plot could have continued, and in fact, concluded without his help, and his inclusion in the story at all feels like a forced attempt to bring all the previous players back for the second volume.

The Apprentices, like The Apothecary, is a mature middle grade read. It’s not for the dabbler, or the faint of heart. There are heavy issues at play, and as our characters traverse farther and farther into teenagedom, there can only be more heavy on the way. But it is a rewarding read. Meloy’s use of language is above par, and her pacing and scenarios will keep you up at night, turning pages, until you’ve reached the end.

The Apprentices by Maile Meloy
2013, Putnam Juvenile
Preview copy provided by publisher for review

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