More Jess Please: A Review of Margaret Mahy’s Alchemy

I had high expectations of Alchemy by Margaret Mahy because I read The Changeover at an impressionable age and adored it. I think The Changeover may actually have been my first introduction to Young Adult Fantasy, come to think of it . . . it’s hard to remember back that far, now that I have children who regularly use their super powers to melt my brain.  Well, Alchemy wasn’t as good as The Changeover, in my opinion, but I’m also not a preteen anymore so bear that in mind while reading my review.

From the book jacket:

When Roland’s teacher gives him an unusual assignment instead of punishment for shoplifting, he thinks he is home free. All he has to do is find out what he can about a classmate, Jess Ferret, and report back to his teacher. But there is something less than straightforward about this request, especially because the more Roland learns about Jess, the more confused he becomes. Her house is sinisterly tidy, her parents are never home, mysterious books line the bookshelves, and, most intriguing of all, Jess is apparently a student of alchemy.

Why is Roland’s teacher so interested in Jess? Why has a shady magician from Roland’s past suddenly come back into his life? What exactly are the voices in Roland’s head cautioning him against? And what is the reason for Jess Ferret’s knowledge about alchemy? In searching for answers Roland finds himself trapped in a mysterious web of magic, power, and greed.

Alchemy actually hovers on the brink of so-so–in fact I originally rated it as so-so, but upon further reflection decided I mostly enjoyed it, and I’m feeling generous, so I’m calling it very nice with reservations.

I’ll start with the reservations part so that I can end on a positive note.

My first reservation is that Mahy doesn’t flesh out Jess Ferret well enough to suit me; I want to know more about her, other than the fact that she has a pimple on her forehead and knows how to make a cup of coffee using a french press. She does this funny thing with words:

“You’ve got all nosy about me for some reason, and you thought I’d fall at your feet just with the flattery of being seen–the battery of fleeing scene.”

“I keep telling you,” she said, “Telling you, and yelling too!”

For that, and for the fact that she doesn’t fall all over look-at-how-clever-and-smart-and-popular-I-am Roland, she’s clearly a girl worth knowing. Is it too much to ask to get to know her a bit better?

Also, there is in this novel a declaration of love that just doesn’t work for me. I can’t say much about it without giving a major spoiler, but . . . it just doesn’t work. It feels random and thrown in, and doesn’t flow naturally from the plot.

But the biggest problem was the pacing. Roland spends a lot of time musing on the ways he is changing, and Mahy makes sure we are intimately aware of the musing. I could have done with fewer pages of pondering and more Jess Ferret. Seriously, there were several times where I just skipped to the end of a paragraph because I just. didn’t. care. and I wanted something to please happen already.

That said, there are some excellent things about this novel. For one, Roland is a very well developed character. Mind you, he’s a bit of a pretentious twit at the opening, but he learns and grows a bit as the story goes on, so I’ll forgive him. He does, after all, do the right thing and all that.

Mahy’s depiction of Roland’s family life is wonderful; she paints a believable picture of a family full of love in spite of having plenty of flaws. Roland’s mother is sympathetic but not artificially saintly, his younger brothers are pests, but good-hearted pests, and Roland himself cares about people underneath his carefully cultivated facade of flippancy.

But what Mahy does best, in my opinion, is set an emotional tone for her novel that carries all the way through. She’s really good at atmosphere; I could feel mysterious things pushing at the surface of Roland’s perception, waiting to spill over him at any moment, simultaneously unnerving and alluring. This tension was what made me a fan of The Changeover, and it’s what made this book worth reading.

Also it made me want to go read The Changeover again . . .


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