The Alchemyst : The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott was published in 2007, the same year as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Last year, the sixth and final book in this series was published. So, if, like me, you are late to this party, the good news is that you don't have to wait a year for each book in the series to be written. And, the first five books are in paperback with book Six, The Enchantress, coming out in paperback in May of 2013. I purchased this book when it came out almost six years ago and my daughter read and enjoyed it. It's long been on my list of books to read, especially since, as a bookseller, I noticed a large number of adult flocking to this series and raving about it. While this series has much in common with Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series - mythological figures and creatures, fast paced action and battles - the heroes of Scott's series, twins Josh and Sophie Newman are fifteen, almost sixteen and these books are considered YA (young adult.) I decided to give this book a middle grade rating after reading the first book and summaries of the next five books in the series. I think these books are classified YA because of the age of the main characters and the intensity of the violence as well as the creepiness of the creatures doing battle. But, as I said above, I think the action and creatures in this book are comparable to those in Riordan's and, while I have only read the synopses of the rest of the series it does not seem like it ever gets as dark or personal as Rowling's books do. There are just too many mythological and historical figures (if your kids read this series, insist that they look up all the characters and creatures, at least on Wikipedia or the wikia website dedicated to this series, to know their historical origins) running around in this series for us to ever get to know Josh and Sophie as intimately as Harry, Ron and Hermione. The world of Hogwarts is much smaller and more immediate than the world that the twins find themselves thrown into. On another note, I read and listened to the audio book and will be providing the phonetic pronunciation of the more difficult names that appear in this book.
At the start of The Alchemyst : The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel we learn that the Newman twins are spending the summer in San Francisco with their elderly Aunt Agnes while their parents, academic anthropologists, are off on another dig. So, while they are the prototypical orphans found in all great works of fantasy, they might as well be. In very loving, thoughtful terms, both Sophie and Josh describe how they know they are loved by their distracted parents, but, having spent their lives traveling from one dig or university after another, the twins rely on themselves for support and love. Happily, in their efforts to earn money to buy a car (a completely laughable endeavor by the time you've read a few books into the series) the twins have found employment in establishments just across the street from each other, Sophie at the Coffee Cup and Josh at an antiquarian bookshop owned by the middle aged Nick Fleming and his lovely wife Perry, customer at the Coffee Cup. The appearance of John Dee and his Golems in the first chapter brings magic and destruction into the lives of the twins and sends them on the run with Nick, who reveals that he is the immortal Nicholas Flamel and the Codex - the book of magic written by Abraham the Mage thousands of years ago - has just been stolen from him by Dee, who rips it out of Josh's hands. This Codex, among many other things, contains the recipe for the Philosopher's Stone, which turns base metal into gold and diamonds, and the potion for immortality. Without that recipe, Nicholas and Perenelle (pronounced Parah-nell) will be dead by the next full moon - approximately 30 days and the length of real time over which this series takes place. While Josh manages to rip the last two pages from the Codex which contain the rites of the Final Summoning, Dee and his Golems flee with Perenelle and the Codex.
As a native Californian, one thing I love about this book (and series) is that much of the action takes place in California. Starting in San Francisco, it moves on to Ojai (pronounced Oh-hi) and eventually the beautiful Point Reyes with a large part of the very imaginative and creepy action taking place on Alcatraz. Nicholas flees with the twins to the home of Scathach, (pronounced Scat-tah) also known as Scatty, the two thousand year old Warrior Maiden/Demon Slayer/Vampire (who, as the highest form of vampire absorbs human emotion to feel alive, not blood.) Scatty has the appearance of a red headed, freckle faced seventeen-year-old and has a Scottish/Irish accent and prefers form-fitting combat attire. Together, the four flee the encroaching attacks of John Dee, who can control rats, and the Morrigan, his partner, who controls crows. There is a pretty cool attack scene right out of Hitchcock's movie where the car the four are fleeing in, since Nicholas and Scatty don't know how to drive, is mobbed by crows that cover the Golden Gate Bridge and their car. They head to the hills of Marin to the secret compound of Hekate (pronounced Heck-atay). Hekate, the Goddess of three faces is a first-generation Elder who's life is interwoven with Yggdrasil, the tree of life. Once there, Nicholas reveals that he thinks Sophie and Josh are the twins of legend, "the two that are one, the one that is all," because their auras (the source of all magical power in this series) are pure silver (Sophie) and pure gold (Josh), rare and powerful. Nicholas hopes that he can convince Hekate to awaken their magical powers so that they can fight Dee and fulfill the somewhat hazy prophecy. However, she is only able to awaken Sophie's powers before Dee, the Morrigan and Bastet, the Egyptian Goddess of cats, who attack with a force of crows and cats that, when they enter Hekate's shadowrealm, become humans with cat heads and claws. The quartet survive and flee south to Ojai where the Witch of Endor, Mistress of Air and Elder who was a good friend of Abraham the Mage and also Scatty's grandmother, runs an antiques shop. The hope is that she will impart her wisdom of the Air Element to Sophie. Minutes after she does this, after first giving Scatty a hard time for never calling, Dee arrives on the scene and uses his skills as a necromancer to raise the dead - human and animal alike - to attack and, he hopes, abscond with Josh. Dee has figured out that they may be the twins of the prophecy and he wants to awaken Josh's powers and use them for his own ends.
The rest of the book (and series) finds the quartet fleeing from one magical, mythical, historical location (and time period) and person/creature to the next as they try to train Sophie (and eventually Josh) in the four elemental magics, rescue Perry from Dee's clutches and stop him and the Dark Elders from destroying the world and starting anew. Shakespeare, Machiavelli, Joan of Arc, Billy the Kid, Virginia Dare, Quetzalcoatl, Odin, Osiris are all characters who make an appearance in the series. One of the most interesting twists Scott adds to his story is Danu Talis, also known as Atlantis, where the elders lived. It sank 10,000 years ago when the ruling twins with auras of pure gold and silver fought on the Pyramid of the sun...
I definitely recommend this series of books for readers who have consumed all the great fantasy series from Potter to Percy and are looking for something a little different. Scott's imagination is inventive and creative at a time when the world of fantasy in middle grade and young adult books feels near to complete saturation. Scott's newest series, The Thirteen Hallows, with coauthor Collette Freedman, is for adults, but hopefully he will return to the world of kid's books soon!