The Alchemyst: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel

By Michael Scott [LibraryThingGoodreads]

Nicholas Flamel and his wife Perenelle have lived nearly seven hundred years, thanks to Nicholas’s possession of the Codex, a book full of magical secrets like the elixir of life, the spell to turn base metals to gold…and the key to bringing back the old gods and destroying the human race. When Nicholas is attacked by his almost-as-ancient enemy, Dr. John Dee, and the book and Perenelle are both taken, Nicholas knows he doesn’t have long before the human race is wiped out by Dee’s masters, the Dark Elders. All Nicholas has on his side are Josh and Sophie, ordinary 15-year-old twins who didn’t mean to get mixed up in all this. But Nicholas suspects they may be the twins prophesied in the Codex, who may save the world…or destroy it.

In the past decade, there has been a slew of kids’ and YA fantasy series that became phenomena: Harry Potter. Twilight. A Series of Unfortunate Events. Percy Jackson. The Hunger Games. And, naturally, such success brings more aspiring authors to the 18-and-under market. While the majority of the successful ones do genuinely seem interested in writing stories for and about young people, every so often I find myself getting the sense that a certain author is merely jumping on the kids’/YA bandwagon. There’s the sneaking suspicion that the author isn’t the least bit interested in kids, but decided to write for that market because it’s lucrative – and after all, how hard can it be? They’re just kids.

I don’t know Michael Scott’s life. He may have always dreamed of being a YA author, in which case, congratulations! But The Alchemyst really felt like a bandwagon book.

That’s not to say there aren’t strengths to the book. Scott does some really interesting worldbuilding, populating his pages with basically every ancient pantheon in history. I found his interpretations of Hecate, Bastet, and the Morrigan to be fascinating, especially in the ways they negotiated the modern world, and I loved the throwaway mentions of figures like Odin and Persephone and the passing references to Arthurian legend and American folklore. The gods were all nicely scary, even the “good” ones, and Dee (based, like the Flamels, on a real historical figure-cum-legend) was a solid antagonist.

Perenelle, Flamel’s wife, was quite frankly great – smarter, more resourceful, and more engaging than her husband. I loved that even though she spent most of the book in Dee’s clutches, she never became a damsel in distress, but instead used her magic and cunning to send messages to Nicholas and try to escape. For that matter, I loved that there were nearly twice as many major female characters as male ones in The Alchemyst, and that they were all more powerful than the dudes.

Even Flamel was fine, if a bit of an enigma (in that annoying “I won’t answer your questions, not for any real reason, just to drag out the plot” way, to boot). If Scott had jumped on that other literary bandwagon of the Oughties and written a magical Da Vinci Code, letting his clear fascination with Dee and history and mythology take center stage, he probably would have had a stronger book, or at least one that feels less like an imposter.

But he didn’t, and we’re left not with Flamel or Dee as the protagonist, as Scott admits in the Afterword he originally intended, but Josh and Sophie. And Josh and Sophie do not resemble teenagers in any way, shape, or form. In fact, it took me several pages to realize they were supposed to be teenagers at all (like, I didn’t pick up on it until the narration said “Josh and Sophie were fifteen”). Before that, I was genuinely perplexed as to why this YA book starred a couple of 30-year-olds.

The real problem, though, is not that Josh and Sophie don’t feel authentically youthful, but that they don’t feel authentically anything. They’re total ciphers, given character traits and knowledge at random to drive the plot forward. The trivia they spout off is ludicrously specific: their expertise in archaeology is hand-waveable thanks to their absentee archaeologist parents, but archaeology is not the same thing as paleontology, so I’m not sure why Sophie knows that pteranodons are older than pterosaurs, and it certainly doesn’t explain why Josh knows how old Joan of Arc and King Tut were when they died and why he can name the craters of the moon. Conversely, they know almost nothing about mythology, mostly so Flamel can explain it to them and the reader, but you’d think they’d have picked some of it up from their parents.

Aside from their extremely specific and esoteric knowledge and Josh’s tendency to run off at the mouth, they don’t really have personalities to speak of. Every so often Scott stops the narration to inform us that, say, Sophie likes tea or Josh is afraid of snakes, and he repeatedly tells us (but never shows us) that the twins love and rely on each other, but there are no consistent patterns of behavior to shape their characters. At one point, the twins are watching Flamel and another ally fight off the bad guys.

“We should help,” Josh said.

“And do what?” Sophie asked, without a trace of sarcasm.

[Two paragraphs later.]

“We’ve got to help!” Sophie said.

“How?” Josh shouted, but his twin had run into the kitchen, desperately looking for a weapon…

There’s never any acknowledgment that the twins have switched sides of the argument. It’s shoddy editing, but it’s also symptomatic of the twins being such blank slates that either one of them could easily take one side of the argument or the other. It’s not that Sophie is helpful and Josh is reluctant, or vice versa. They’re both just empty.

Finally, Scott uses my least favorite narrative trick in order to give Sophie magical abilities: one god touches her, and she gets them. Another god touches her and she understands them. There’s no earning of her skills and no effort to bring them under control; she just meets two gods and suddenly she’s a powerful magician. (It also enhances her senses, but because she already had a preternaturally good sense of smell when it was convenient for the plot, it lacks impact.) By watching Sophie learn how to use her powers, we could have gotten into her headspace a bit, but Scott doesn’t bother, thus exacerbating the feeling that Sophie is a plot device and not a character.

There are some great concepts underpinning The Alchemyst, but they’re undermined by lazy writing and nonexistent characterization. To make a book for young people work, you need to put engaging young people in it. As I said above, I don’t know Scott’s life; he could very well have spent ages crafting Josh and Sophie’s personalities. But unlike the clearly lovingly-researched rest of the book, they read as if he doesn’t care about them. And if he doesn’t care, why should I? The Alchemyst gets one cupcake, and I won’t be picking up the rest of the series.

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