I straight up love history, so I was all about the Cold War aspects of the story. Spying and atomic bomb testing? Sign me up. This definitely doesn't read like a text book, though, so don't worry about that. If anything, The Apothecary is more designed to educate younger readers on the horrors of atomic warfare without actually scaring the pants off of them. I definitely thought it was awesome that Janie and her parents had to move at the beginning because of the Red Scare moving through the entertainment industry.
What I liked best about The Apothecary definitely also formed a weakness in the story, ironically enough. I loved the scenes surrounding the use of the different alchemical recipes. The very best scenes of the book to me deal with the quintessential awkwardness of being 14, and the magic/science definitely highlights that. For example, one of my very favorite scenes occurs when Benjamin and Janie test out a truth serum on one another to make sure it works. Of course, they dare each other to say who they fancy. While that may not be surprising, it's totally what would happen and the scene just resounds with teenage discomfort.
However, I felt like the potions and powders were a bit too...easy, I guess. Have a problem? The Pharmacopoeia (Alchemical book) has something for it! What was perhaps more frustrating was that, except for one particular spell (or whatever you want to call it), the potions and stuff were already ready made. It just seemed kind of lame. I wanted the kids to do more, to have to work more to get going. It felt like most of the book was just the kids discovering new awesome thing after new awesome thing. It just felt too convenient to me.
While I did really like Meloy's writing, I felt like her characterization needed work. I really liked most of the characters actually, but I never felt especially connected to Janie, which is unfortunate, since you see from her perspective. I guess I just had trouble getting a handle on who she was, other than a brave girl who likes adventures. I just don't feel like I know anything about her interests. Pip totally stole the show. He is such a perfect rapscallion!
All told, I definitely thought this was a wonderful read. It's worth perusing especially to see the gorgeous illustrations by Schoenherr. He did a marvelous job, and I always anticipated new chapters because I knew I'd get to see a new picture!