I had thought this series might have the broad appeal of the Potter books, but the newest instalment let me down.
The sequel to the exciting Apothecary immediately engages you in its adventure, with Janie facing expulsion from school. Being on the verge of success with her desalination experiment, she determines to continue it in secret. But then it is stolen.
Unfortunately, the story then flattens out so that it is like watching a cartoon. We witness the action unfold but don’t really feel for the characters or become involved in their danger. It’s not difficult to read, but it doesn’t draw you along.
The book’s language is delightful and will have young readers looking up useful new words. Like the first book there’s a natural blend of fantasy and realism, a ‘scientific fantasy’ that could be real.
The narrative also introduces some worthwhile themes. Janie is a hard worker and inspires us with her scientific determination. She’s quick to help her friends in need, even when she’s caught in trouble herself. We glimpse the grizzly effects of war in Vietnam through the eyes of Benjamin and his father who try to help the injured. And there’s discussion of whether it’s right to kill a bad guy—not in direct self-defence—which is resolved when Benjamin’s father clearly indicates it is not.
At one point Benjamin’s father is threatened into trying to make an unstoppable bomb, for fear they will hurt his son. Benjamin, however, urges him to keep looking for a way out. Later, his father admits that this was wrong, and urges his son not to make the same mistake.
There are also some themes to be aware of for younger readers. The characters have grown up since the last book; they are now sixteen, though the style of their adventure and the pictures throughout the book make them seem younger. There’s some fairly simple romance with one boy liking Janie from afar and another getting close enough for a brief kiss. A hug also lets the boys know she’s changed physically.
On other relationships, Pip and Opal (two friends of Janie’s) share a hotel room with two beds while they’re waiting for assistance. It is later said they kissed a bit (to pass the time) and Pip liked to look at the beautiful Opal, but there’s nothing further made of it. And the baddie mastermind has an open affair with a woman who—somewhat ignorantly—helps him with his evil plans.
There’s a brief discussion about religion that should be noted for its agnosticism. An island was once visited by a man called John Frum who came in an aeroplane and gave the islanders food and gadgets. They have been waiting for him to return ever since. Benjamin compares western religions to the islanders waiting for John Frum and his ‘cargo’. Some people, Benjamin says, wait for their god to return, praying to him for what they want, but no one really knows if the god will return, or why people sometimes get what they pray for and sometimes don’t. The matter is left unresolved.
The healing work that is the life-calling of the apothecary is referred to by Benjamin’s father as a work being done by ‘the universe’, and for which they are only instruments. While consistent with the fantasy-realism of the story, it could also be a fitting allegory for those who do good; they are passing on something which doesn’t originate from themselves but with which they correspond and act as a channel for.
All in all it’s an interesting, perhaps underdeveloped story that may engage avid readers looking for something new to make them think.