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Book 139: The Alchemyst by Michael Scott

Book 139: The Alchemyst: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel Book 1.
Author: Michael Scott, 2007
Genre: YA, Fantasy Adventure.
Other Details: Hardback. 400 pages. Unabridged audio,length: 10 hours 5 mins. Read by Dennis O'Hare.

This contemporary fantasy opens in modern day San Francisco when 15-year old twins Josh and Sophie Newman discover that the owner of the bookstore where Josh works is not quite what he seems. He is the 14th century French alchemist, Nicholas Flamel and both he and his wife Perenelle, are immortal thanks to the elixir of life. For centuries, they have served as the guardians of the Book of Abraham, a codex containing the most powerful spells in the world. Their sworn enemy is Dr John Dee, who covets the Codex. When Dee discovers their current whereabouts, he attacks with the aid of supernatural creatures in order to steal the codex. Josh and Sophie find themselves caught up in this battle and soon are being hunted by Dee and his minions.

This had struck me as such an interesting premise and I had high hopes for this book. However, I found it something of a mess. I was left with the impression that Scott had fastened onto Flamel because of his off-stage appearance in the first Harry Potter book and saw it as a selling point to hook readers. If the book was a movie it would have been directed by Michael Bay: tons of frenetic non-stop action, pop culture references that could almost be product placement and little characterisation. The human twins, who find themselves thrown into this adventure, are very sketchily drawn though to be fair it is the first in a planned series of six novels so things might improve.

Scott's greatest failing for me was his muddled approach to myth and legend. He assigns the members of his 'elder race' to various gods and goddesses of myth though is quite indiscriminate with their attributions and mixes pantheons randomly. For example: he casts the Egyptian cat goddess Bastet as a dark Elder despite her benevolent role in ancient Egypt. Maybe he's just not a cat-lover. This and other factors made me wonder if his claim to be an authority on world mythology was just an idle boast. He also throws in a few Biblical characters, vampires, ghosts, ghouls and the sword Excalibur. I was expecting the kitchen sink to be added as a new character at any time.

Given my own background in comparative mythology and subjects such as alchemy (Dr. Dee is one of my all time heroes) of course I am bound to be more critical of Scott's take on world mythology. Still J.K. Rowling was quite idiosyncratic in her use of myth and legend but she did so with a great deal of creativity and humour. Likewise, Rick Riordan has stuck more closely to a single mythology in his Percy Jackson books *and* done a great job in combining action and characterisation and again infusing the books with humour. For me there was very little originality here and no humour at all, at least in the book itself. It certainly generated a lot of snarky comments from me and a friend when we listened to it on audio during a long road trip.

In the early stages we dubbed it 'tropetastic' but very soon the weakness of the plot and the narrator's attempt to invest various characters with accents became annoying. For example, there was Scathach, a teenage Celtic warrior, whose Oirish accent was painful to our ears and the Witch of Endor, an accent that I'd guess was meant to indicate they'd been living in Brooklyn. Rather than hold our attention, we ended up making so many negative comments about the narration and story that we finally switched it off and listened to the radio instead. I finished the book in print format as I couldn't bear any more ear torture.

Even if I found this derivative and poorly executed, I had already bought the next two books in the series (they do have beautiful covers). So I will probably read them at some point, if nothing else to see if they deserve all the glowing reviews they have received on sites such as Goodreads and Amazon. I do suspect though that readers who loved the first book would go on to enjoy the others while those who were disappointed just wouldn't bother with further books despite the cliff-hanger ending of this one.

Preview of 'The Alchemyst' - on Scott's official site.
Tags: adventure, fantasy, myth and legend, unimpressed, vampires, young adult
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