The 14th century alchemist alchemyst Nicholas Flamel has the secret codex containing the recipe for the elixir of life hanging around his neck. For centuries, Dr. John Dee has been hunting for him because he wants that book. Dee has finally traced Flamel to his bookstore in 21st century California. He busts in, gets all but the last two pages of the book, and kidnaps Flamel’s wife. Now the world is in danger because Dee plans to bring the dark Elder gods to power and they will enslave humans. When twins Josh and Sophie witness the crime, they get dragged into the mess. Along the way, they learn that, OMG, there’s a prophecy about twins saving the world!
The most intriguing aspect of The Alchemyst: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel is the overall worldview that Michael Scott has developed. His elder god mythology accounts for all the other known pantheons, numerous archeological discoveries, various myths and legends (e.g., vampires, ghosts, Atlantis), historical events (e.g., the flood, the great fire of London, the Irish famine), real historical figures, and even fictional characters such as Frankenstein. I’ve seen this done before and I think it’s a fun idea and has tons of educational potential for its YA audience, but I tend to become gradually annoyed as the author continues to add more and more to it until it just gets messy. I groaned out loud when Excalibur showed up and then nearly turned off the audiobook when the Witch of Endor had a New York accent and claimed to have given humans both fire and the alphabet. I have to admit, though, that the thought of the Morrigan shopping on eBay is pretty funny.
Unfortunately, this world-building seems to be the main intent of the book, so the plot and characterization suffer. The characters are only superficially developed. We’re told a lot about each of them, but by the end of the book it feels more like we’ve read their biographies than that we really got to know them. The plot mostly consists of running away, hiding, discovering prophecies, and suddenly gaining magical powers. It’s predictable and lacks intensity and excitement. Instead, there’s lots of dialogue and repetitive explanations designed to incorporate all of those disparate mythological and historical elements into the worldview.
The plot has other problems — people just don’t behave reasonably. It was hard to take The Alchemyst seriously from the very beginning when, after centuries of hiding the codex from Dr. Dee and after telling him it had been destroyed, Nicholas Flamel whips it out so he can consult it to cast a spell at Dee… What? You’ve had that little book around your neck for 600 years and you didn’t bother to learn the spell you need to cast against the enemy who’s been chasing you for that long? And then you whip it out right in front of him when you know he’s stronger than you? Unforgiveable.
The Alchemyst is likely to be enjoyable for YA readers who like learning about mythology and history — they’ll learn a lot and perhaps their zeal will make them less prone to notice the shallow plot and characters. Adults with full bookshelves will probably be less satisfied. I read the audiobook version of The Alchemyst and found that the performance of the narrator, Denis O’Hare, made this book bearable for me. His delightful accents and inflections, and his genuinely serious performance, were entertaining. I hope to read more from him in the future.