Book: The Alchemyst: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel
Author: Michael Scott
Age Range: 10-14
The Alchemyst is the first book in Michael Scott's middle grade fantasy series: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel. The publisher sent me a copy of the second book in the series (The Magician). Shortly thereafter, a review by Tricia from the Miss Rumphius Effect made me want to read both books, and so I had to pick up a copy of this one.
The story begins one sunny afternoon in San Francisco, when teenage twins Sophie and Josh Newman witness the kidnapping of local bookseller Perry Fleming. A valuable book is also stolen from Perry's husband, Nick, although Josh (who works in the bookstore) manages to hang on to a few precious pages. Nick sweeps Sophie and Josh away before the kidnappers can return for the lost pages. He tells Josh and Sophie many incredible things, not least of which is that he is actually Nicholas Flamel, the famous alchemist, born in France in 1330. Nicholas has been keeping himself and Perenelle alive and youthful by following an ever-changing formula in the magical book (The Book of Abraham the Mage). Without the formula, Nicholas and Perenelle will age at a rate of about one year per day. Nicholas must race against time to recover the book, and rescue Perenelle, before he dies of old age.
More than Nicholas' fate is at stake, however. The man who has stolen the book, John Dee, plans to use the book to restore a race of immortal creatures, the Elders, to power on Earth. Humans will be reduced to slaves. But the world might be saved if Josh and Sophie turn out to be the magical twins foretold by legend...
The Alchemyst is a fantasy story in which magical creatures turn out to be hidden around the world, almost in plain sight. My favorite thing about this book is the way that Nicholas, having lived for more than 650 years, explains historical events in the context of these magical creatures. For example:
"London," Flamel said shortly. "Dee nearly caught us there in 1666," he continued. "He loosed a Fire Elemental after us, a savage, mindless creature that almost devoured the city. History calls it the Great Fire." (Chapter 5)
"Dee himself has told the story of the greatest of all the Golems, the Red Golem of Prague, to Mary Shelley one cold winter's evening when she, Lord Byron, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley and the mysterious Dr. Polidori were visiting his castle in Switzerland in 1816. Less than six months later, Mary created the story of The Modern Prometheus, the book that became more commonly known as Frankenstein. The monster in her book was just like a Golem." (Chapter 9)
Nicholas also turns out to have known "Will Shakespeare", and other historical figures. And yet, Nicholas and the other ancient immortal characters also use tools of modern technology, such as cell phones. The contrast is entertaining. It's also fun as a reader to speculate on what immortality would be like. You get entertaining sentences like these:
Sophie nodded again. Events had moved so fast that afternoon that she'd barely had time to catch her breath. One moment she'd been working in the coffee shop, the next they were racing across San Francisco in the company of a man who claimed to be a six-hundred-year-old alchemyst and a girl who looked no older than herself and yet who Flamel swore was a two-and-a-half-thousand-year-old female warrior." (Chapter 19)
The Alchemyst is action-packed, with the characters racing from one dangerous situation to the next. Plot, setting, and premise are all intriguing. It's a fun read, one that I think kids will enjoy. I was keen to move on to read the second book.
My only complaint is that I found the characterization to be a bit flat. It's not that Scott doesn't try to make the characters interesting. Sophie is quite clever, thinking of practical solutions that the magicians around her would have missed. Sophie and Josh are close, but Josh isn't above jealousy when Sophie gains something that he doesn't have. One can see that theme continuing through the other books. But somehow, I didn't connect with either of the twins, or with any of the other adult/immortal characters (Flamel is basically a cipher - you aren't meant to connect with him). And this hindered my appreciation of the book. Which is too bad, because I really loved the historical tidbits.
I would still recommend the book to fantasy fans, especially those who like their fantasy set atop the real world, and to people who are intrigued by ancient legends. Adults who enjoyed Katherine Neville's The Eight might also find The Alchemyst diverting (both books feature historical figures as characters). But I wish I identified with the characters more.
Publisher: Delacorte Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: June 24, 2008
Source of Book: Bought it
Other Blog Reviews: Mrs. Magoo Reads, Books and More, The Book Blog of Evil, So Misguided, Blogging for a Good Book, Books, My Friends, bookshelves of doom (more of an explanation for not finishing it than a full review), Books and Other Thoughts, Book~Adorer
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.