Review of The Alchemyst by Michael Scott
by Michael Scott
Look, I know the writing is clunky and the kids read more like twelve-year-olds than the fifteen-year-olds they’re supposed to be. I know the story jerks about in stops and starts. I know Nicholas Flamel is a terrible role model and these kids should not be emulating him.
I still really enjoyed The Alchemyst. And this is one of those times I’m glad I tend to wait a day or two before writing my reviews, because I figured out why it was so enjoyable: it’s like the Saturday morning cartoons I watched as a kid. There were some awesome cartoons in the ’90s—I’m recalling Mighty Max in particular right now, which was about a kid who had a “cosmic” baseball cap that let him travel through time and space with some kind of owl sidekick. It was fun and at times educational, but the ending, if I recall correctly, was very dark. Like Mighty Max, The Alchemyst is obviously pitched at younger children, obviously trying to balance some educational content while having fun with myths and legends—and it too has a very dark tone to it.
I love the archetypal antagonism between Flamel and Dee. I even appreciate Michael Scott’s attempts to muddy the waters with Dee trying to cast doubt in Josh’s mind that he is on the correct side. It’s all a little predictable and heavy-handed (like most of the book), but it also makes sense. I mean, for you to think that you’re humanity’s only hope—so much so that you brew an immortality potion to keep going for six hundred years—requires a pretty big ego. The twins have nothing but Flamel’s own word (or the word of someone Flamel vouches for) that Flamel is the good guy. They are right to be sceptical. Of course, Dee and his allies are so stereotypical and obvious in their evil that it’s hard to see them winning anyone over.
Scott’s attempt to syncretize various mythologies into his universe of the Elder Race and the humani is not as smooth. Your mileage will vary, but overall I guess I just wasn’t too energized by anything that happens with the mythological creatures. Maybe the most intimidating and interesting one was the Morrigan, a character/characters from Irish mythology I hadn’t before encountered. Unfortunately, while Scott is quite dedicated at delivering a little exposition about each creature we meet (the twins’ parents are archaeologists, as they remind us frequently), the story’s headlong rush towards climactic confrontation leaves little time to stop and explore the implications. Similarly, it seemed like every few chapters Scott would reach into the toolbox and pull out another fantasy/mythology concept almost at random—ooh, ley lines!
This is the trade-off between pacing and depth, of course, and is probably one reason why I find most thrillers more shallow than I would like. For example, Perenelle is a kickass character, and she has some great scenes. But she is largely under-utilized. I don’t want to say she is damselled, because while technically captured, I wouldn’t necessarily say she is in “distress” until the very end. Indeed, even while prisoner she finds ways to help Flamel, Sophie, and Josh. Because she is awesome! Nevertheless, being reduced to a support role means she spends much of the book on the sidelines.
Despite these gripes about the storytelling and characterization, I can’t bring myself to fault the book too much. It’s a rush. I didn’t really like Sophie and Josh individually, but I appreciate how they interact with each other. Sophie’s ability to defuse Dee’s seduction with a single line is an excellent example of the power of family and being loved, and while I might not have teared up, I was certainly moved. There is a compelling story happening here, a story that is both epic and endearing. And good stories can usually make up for subpar or mediocre writing, as long as there aren’t major issues in grammar and whatnot.
The Alchemyst, then, is a fun but not necessarily “great” read. I wouldn’t call it a classic, and I don’t know if I’ll pick up the sequels (probably, since it seems like my library has them all, but maybe not right away). Older readers will breeze through it, and younger readers will be able to immerse themselves in it. Scott works hard to bring history and mythology to the page; he doesn’t always succeed at making them work with the story, but the extent of his efforts almost makes up for that clumsiness in execution.