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The Alchemyst by Michael Scott

Chauncey Mabe
South Florida Sun-Sentinel (MCT)

Two teens and a 600-year-old wizard battle evil in modern California in The Alchemyst.

The Alchemyst

Publisher: Bantam Doubleday Dell
Subtitle: The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel
Author: Michael Scott
Price: $16.99
Length: 400
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 0385733577
US publication date: 2007-05

For nearly two months it seemed I wrote about little but Harry Potter. Now that the dust has settled, before the onslaught of fall books, I'm looking around for all I've missed this summer and finding, like many of the younger readers of you-know-who, I'm going through a bit of a fantasy withdrawal.

Not to worry. Under a stack of unread magazines on my library table I discovered a copy of The Alchemyst, a young-adult novel by Michael Scott, a writer popular in Ireland, that has been floated as a promising successor in the juvenile fantasy sweepstakes.

If J.K. Rowling drew upon the great fantasy writing that came before her -- Tolkein, Lewis, and George MacDonald -- then Scott has plundered the entirety of world mythology.

Fifteen-year-old fraternal twins Sophie and Josh Newman, living with an elderly aunt in San Francisco while their parents are on an archaeological dig in Utah, have found summer jobs across the street from each other. Sophie works in a coffee shop, while Josh sorts the stacks in Nick Fleming's bookstore. The day is suddenly rent asunder when a small, well-dressed man named Jonathan Dee enters the bookstore and attacks Fleming -- with magic.

In no time Sophie and Josh find themselves fleeing the city in a stolen SUV, with Nick and an ancient Celtic warrior named Scathach -- who looks like a 17-year-old girl -- pursued by a horde of preternaturally strong crows and ravens. Perry, Nick's wife, has been captured and imprisoned by Dee, who is by day a wealthy entertainment mogul.

Sophie and Josh get their explanations on the fly. Nick is actually Nicholas Flamel, a 14th-century French alchemist and magician; Perry is Perenelle, his wife of nearly 600 years. Dee, an astrologer, was once Flamel's apprentice, but he went over to serve the Elder Race, incredibly ancient beings who preceded the rise of humankind, form the basis-in-fact of all gods and goddesses, and who were banished to the margins of reality after they mucked up their own age in what humans have mythologized as the sinking of Atlantis.

It turns out Flamel is the guardian of an ancient mystical text, The Codex of Abraham the Mage, which contains the secret of the Philosopher's Stone, a recipe for eternal youth, and prophecies regarding the end of the present age, the return of the Elders, and -- of course -- the enslavement of humankind. Dee wrenches the book from Flamel, but not before Josh, holding on for dear life, is left with two critical pages in his grasp.

Scott handles this wealth of reconstituted mythology with confidence and dexterity.

Yes, it is intended as high praise indeed when I say his narrative reads like a collaboration between Joss Whedon and Stephen King. It has the quick wit and teen credibility that Whedon brought to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and the compulsive readability of King's horror novels. But revved up, without all the ponderous parts, the parts where King talks to himself page after page.

The story builds up to not one but two grand climaxes, one in the refuge of Hekate, a first-generation Elder with the powers of a goddess, who takes in the fugitives, not so much for their sake but to foil their pursuers, the crow-goddess Morrigan and the cat-headed Egyptian deity Bastet.

The other comes in a small desert town outside of Los Angeles, where an old woman who is really the Witch of Endor -- "the original witch" -- lives a quiet life after spending a millennium teaching humanity to walk upright, make fire, write and assume its own destiny.

Scott's craftsmanship, considerable as it may be, is exceeded by his craftiness. Every major character, except for Josh and Sophie, are figures from history, religion or mythology.

In his wisest gambit of all, Flamel is referenced in no less a work than the Potter books, where he is honored as a significant magician of earlier times.

Thus does Scott seek to wrench the baton for himself. One difference: Where Rowling's books are intentionally archaic, The Alchemyst takes place in a world of laptops, cell phones and MP3 players.

One similarity, though -- I'll warrant this series, like Rowling's, will prove as entertaining for adults as for kids.

Indeed, except for the absence of sexuality it is virtually a grown-up novel, and some younger readers may find it too intense.

It certainly has more substance, more self-possession -- no fart jokes, I'm pleased to report -- than, say, the Artemis Fowl series.

And if I had the second volume, The Magician, I'd start it right this second.


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