What happens when a class assignment becomes a war of magic versus free will?
When Roland's teacher gives him an unusual assignment instead of a 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, and the more Roland learns about Jess, the more confused he becomes. Her house is too tidy, her parents are never home, strange books line the bookshelves, and, most intriguing of all, Jess is studying alchemy.
Roland struggles with these questions -- and with a sense that if he doesn't uncover the answers soon, something drastic will happen. When a sinister magician from Roland's past gets involved in the mystery, Roland realizes that he is trapped in a dangerous web of magic, power, and greed -- and there might be no way out.
|Publisher:||Margaret K. McElderry Books|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.28(h) x 0.60(d)|
|Age Range:||12 - 17 Years|
Read an Excerpt
Mr. Hudson set a cardboard box on his desk, blinking at Roland in a judicial way as he did so. For some reason this single glance entirely changed Roland's mood. He knew at once that he was not going to be praised, something he had been anticipating. Whatever it was that had caused Mr. Hudson to hold him back from midday break was being heralded by an expression of disapproval -- even, Roland realized incredulously, of contempt.
Flicking the box open, Mr. Hudson thrust his left hand into it with the confidence of a conjurer who knew he was going to whisk a rabbit from an empty hat. He drew out not a rabbit, but a plastic packet containing three fine-tipped pens -- red, green, and blue -- which he set down in front of Roland with grim deliberation. Plunging his hand into the box for a second and then a third time, he brought out something in a greasy paper bag and finally a thick notebook with a red cover.
Roland's reaction to these successive revelations must have satisfied a teacher trying to establish a small melodrama. His mouth fell open like an astonished mouth in some overacted TV sitcom. He was more taken aback than if Mr. Hudson really had produced a rabbit, and certainly far more alarmed. After shooting a startled glance at his English teacher, he looked back at the objects placed before him. A great blush swept through him, starting under his hair and then, driven by powerful shame, burning down through his cheeks, chest, and stomach. Of all the people in his class -- in the school, even -- Roland was famous for smart answers, but he had no answer to the silent accusation that those pens, the greasy bag, and that notebook were making as they lay before him.
"Well?" said Mr. Hudson at last. Roland gave a shrug so small it was nothing more than a convulsive twitch. He did not even try to look in the paper bag. He already knew what it must contain. Mr. Hudson was confronting him with the exact duplicates of the articles he had stolen only a week ago.
"It's not as if you couldn't afford to buy them," said Mr. Hudson. "Shoplifting is a contemptible crime, don't you think?"
Roland remained silent. There was no excuse for it; there was not any true explanation -- not one that made any sense, even to him. Here he was, seventeen years old, licensed to drive, a moderately well-to-do student, a prefect, with the prospect of scholarship exams coming up at the end of the year. Not only that, he was going out with Chris Glennie, who was possibly the brightest, and certainly the most beautiful, girl in the school. How could he have risked screwing things up by shoplifting three pens, a pie, and a notebook? All the same, that was what he had done. The pie was gone, eaten almost immediately, but in the drawer of his desk at home three pens in a plastic envelope, along with a red-covered notebook, exact twins to the objects Mr. Hudson had just set down in front of him, were lying, totally unused.
It had been one of those days -- a day like today, for that matter -- when he had been allowed to drive his mother's car to school, with the proviso that he bring home a few family groceries. He had parked, crossed the road opposite the café painted blue and silver, and turning right into the arched mall, walked along it into the ultimate temple of the supermarket. He could clearly remember the moment when the impulse overtook him, could even remember the people to the left and right of him, all busy acting on impulses of their own. A mother with a baby in a stroller went sliding past him. A couple of young women were fidgeting by the rack of greeting cards, showing the cards to each other and laughing as they did so. Just beyond them a man in a long black coat held out a length of wrapping paper and stared down at it, apparently trying to work out if it was wide enough for his needs. The notebook slipped into Roland's back pocket just as easily as the package of pens, less than a minute later, slid inside his open collar to nestle over his heart, the bulge well hidden by the Crichton Academy blazer. Earlier he had chosen a pie from a small oven set at eye level on the wall in the fast-food section and had placed it carefully in the shopping cart among the groceries his mother needed. Moving into the frozen-food section he had leaned across the handle of the shopping cart and, easing the pie out of its paper bag, had begun to eat it, almost absentmindedly. No one had seemed to notice, not even the young woman who had suddenly rounded the low open-refrigerated section, advancing on him briskly in her blue supermarket smock. He remembered looking at her defiantly, expecting some sort of accusation. But she must have been concentrating on some internal supermarket errand, for she had hurried on without so much as glancing at him.
And now it appeared that Mr. Hudson must have been somewhere close at hand -- must have been spying on him down some oblique supermarket vista and must have been watching him closely enough to know the colors of the stolen pens and just which notebook he had chosen. And then he had obviously chosen for himself the exact objects he had seen Roland stealing, presumably to add drama to this confrontation. Cheap drama, thought Roland, staring at his teacher with tattered defiance.
"Why did you do it?" asked Mr. Hudson again. ("Why did you?" Roland wanted to retort, surveying the objects on the desk in front of him.)
"Dunno!" he said. To his embarrassment, his voice came out as a guilty mumble. It had been a long time since he said anything in any teacher's presence that sounded so furtive and defeated. These days, if he was reprimanded (which occasionally still happened), he mostly succeeded in finding a reply that was literary or witty enough to win a reluctant grin. Mind you, it was a tricky thing to bring off. Clever answers could sometimes infuriate teachers who weren't in the mood for them. It was important to get the balance right. Roland had always believed, however, that he had Mr. Hudson well and truly sussed. For one thing, Mr. Hudson was a terrific reader and responded warmly to other readers, and Roland vaguely imagined that at the end of the year, when school was finally over, they would shrug off their unnatural roles of teacher and pupil and would become friends of a sort, talking about books when they met and joking with each other in a worldly way.
"I can't just let it go," said Mr. Hudson. "I can't overlook it." He waited, but Roland had nothing useful to say.
"I've obviously thought it over for a day or two," said Mr. Hudson. "You do realize, don't you, that if I went to the principal, he wouldn't overlook it, no matter how sorry you said you were. He is a little, well, let's say obsessed with the Crichton Academy image out on the street -- which happens to mean behavior in public places, such as supermarkets." Roland thought of the school principal, Mr. McDonald, who had never seemed to be impressed by Roland's wit. "I don't think he'd necessarily expel you, or anything like that," Mr. Hudson went on, giving Roland a faintly relenting smile as he spoke. Then he paused, looking at Roland in a measuring way before completing his sentence. "But I think he'd probably have you struck off as a prefect." Roland, who had been about to relax and even to smile a little himself, relieved at detecting the smallest degree of camaraderie, felt his face stiffening once more as he imagined the guessing and gossip that would blaze up around the school if he were toppled in any way. His friends probably wouldn't desert him (though some of them might find their tolerance blurred with scorn and secret triumph), but his mother -- his mother would be as degraded as if she had been caught shoplifting herself. The thought of his mother's humiliation struck him like pain. As for Chris -- sexy Chris, with the long legs and the small, sharp breasts (dulled and camouflaged during the week by the Crichton school uniform, but joyously outlined by her weekend clothes) -- Chris was ruthless with losers. Shoplifting! She'd dump him. No question. And then, as these thoughts flicked wildly through his head, it suddenly came to Roland that Mr. Hudson was working his way toward not a punishment, but a proposition. He looked up from the pens, the pie, and the notebook and studied his teacher warily.
"Help me to discharge my conscience," Mr. Hudson now suggested, right on cue. "Give me the illusion of having done something constructive about your stupidity, and I won't go to the top about it. What do you say?"
He was about to propose a deal. Roland was flooded with such relief that he began blushing for the second time in five minutes. Still, he knew he couldn't afford to feel at ease just yet.
"There's a girl in your class who's having some sort of problem," said Mr. Hudson. "Don't ask me how I know about it. I just know. Let's leave it at that. But I don't know exactly what her problem is. I'd like you to, well..." He paused. "I'd like you to take a bit of interest in her. Cultivate her. Find out what's happening in her life and report back to me. Do you think you could bring that off?"
It was almost worse than being told he must confess to the principal -- almost, but not quite.
"Who is it?" Roland asked in a resigned voice.
Mr. Hudson's sigh was nearly inaudible. Roland's apprehension suddenly deepened.
"Jess Ferret," said Mr. Hudson, and (as Roland's mouth fell open in silent protest) he added hastily, holding up his hands, palms outward, and shaking them at Roland as if he might need to ward him off, "I know she's not one of your crowd, but -- "
"She's not part of anyone's crowd." Roland was dismayed enough to interrupt him. "Sir, the Weasel -- Jess Ferret, that is -- likes being on her own. She says she does. I can't push in on her. It wouldn't work. I just can't."
"Are you telling me that someone as self-confident as you can't talk your way into a conversation with poor old Jess?" asked Mr. Hudson derisively. "After all, you talk your way out of plenty of situations -- well, maybe not shoplifting," he added rather meanly, "but I've heard you in action over and over again by now. And you've known Jess for years. It's not as if she's a total stranger."
"Sir, everyone knows that Jess likes to be left alone," said Roland, ashamed at the desperation in his voice. He was sounding utterly uncool.
"Something's happened to her over the last day or two," Mr. Hudson persisted. "I want to know what it is. And as to her saying she likes to be alone, well, I don't suppose it occurs to you that that's what people sometimes say when they feel they're going to be left alone anyway. They pretend, even to themselves, that it's what they wanted all along. And just in case you're in any doubt -- no, I'm certainly not asking you to make a..." He hesitated. "A close friend of her. All I'm asking is that you take a bit of interest in her and see if you can't get her to confide in you a little. I mean, look at it this way -- you've got status in the school, and she'll probably be flattered, deep down. She just might confide in you. And then you can report back to me. Once I've got a clearer picture of what's going on, I'll take over."
It suddenly occurred to Roland that, even allowing for the fact that a caring teacher might scheme on behalf of some pupil who seemed at risk, there was something peculiar about this assignment. His eyes narrowing, he lifted his head and for the first time stared directly at Mr. Hudson, only to catch a flicker of something eager yet furtive coming and going behind that expression of official concern. Their glances locked. Then Mr. Hudson looked down rather quickly at the pens and notebook on his desk, drawing in a hissing half breath, which he managed to turn into casual emphasis but which was far from casual. When he looked up again, his expression was nothing if not bland and judicial once more. What's going on? Roland wanted to know. What's really going on? But at that moment he felt too unsure of himself to ask.
"Well, I'll try," he said, giving in. He had no real choice. "But she mightn't want to...I mean, what if she tells me to get lost?"
Mr. Hudson smiled a little. "Don't worry about what she might say." Roland could almost feel him relaxing, there on the other side of the pens, the pie, and the red notebook. "If she's stubborn -- well, we'll talk about other possibilities. But for the present I suggest you get into conversation with her -- you know, talk about books...films...cricket...whatever she's interested in. She does read a lot. Oh, and science! She's keen on science. Her father's some sort of scientist. Ask about him, if you like. Her mother works, and so does yours. You've got something in common. Tell her about your parents and see if you can't find out about hers. Parents are reasonably universal territory, aren't they? We've all got them. Is it a deal?"
But this was no deal. It was an order.
"Yes, sir. Okay! But -- "
"'But me no buts!'" quoted Mr. Hudson, smiling now, not even trying to hide his pleasure that things were going the way he wanted them to go.
But..., echoed Roland's inner voice, that cautioning voice that had first spoken to him in his old nightmare. But..., it repeated, without having any more to say.
And a few minutes later Roland was walking down the school corridor, feeling a stranger to himself. Twenty minutes ago he had been in charge of his life. Now he was tottering on the edge of disgrace. But..., repeated that inner voice.
And this time something contrary and irrational leaped up inside him. It was as if he had been secretly hoping...well, certainly not for this, but for something dangerous and wild -- something to override his everyday life, even though he had worked so steadily over the last seven years to set that responsible life firmly in place.
Copyright © 2003 by Margaret Mahy
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Interesting story but sketchy and drawn out too long. Lots of the protagonist inner debate and dialogue. It's a shame because the premise of some people being born to magic but either shutting themselves off to it or (gasp!) having their abilities stolen by malicious magicians could have been developed into something much more dynamic. As it is, this story treads between being a good fantasy and a lame romance.
Roland has a recurring nightmare: he dreams that a magician locks him into a coffin, and while in the coffin, he discovers a whole new way of existing, an ability to be one with the universe and even, perhaps, to alter it. That's not the scary part of the dream. The scary part is that, when he emerges from the coffin, he knows that he is altered forever, in ways he cannot explain. When a teacher blackmails him into spying on solitary Jessica, he realizes that Jess and he have a lot in common - and that their commonality may end up destroying them both.In general, I like Margaret Mahy's books. I like her strong, thoughtful teen characters, and I like the over-the-top problems they have to deal with. But I have firm opinions about fantasy, and one of them is that I think magic should have clearly defined rules that the author adheres to, no matter how tempting it may be to fudge them. No such rules ever emerged in "Alchemy," which, by the way, is a rather inappropriate title - no alchemy is happening in this book. I was confused throughout the book, and the denouement was messy and unconvincing - loose ends everywhere, nothing clearly explained. Mahy can do better - and HAS done better.
Alchemy is a book that describes how some of the people around you have special powers. Roland is a popular smart kid in a small private school. He has a beautiful girlfriend and the perfect life. One day he makes a mistake that a teacher discovers. The teacher blackmails him into learning more about one of his fellow students. Through this process, he learns more about himself and the people around him.
After Roland gets caught shoplifting, one of his teacher asks him to spy on strange Jess Ferret, which is bizarre enough. But odder still is Jess¿s home life ¿ her parents are never around and there¿s something going on. Soon, Roland wants to find out for himself, and gets caught up in the world of Alchemy and his own father.I found the characters and plot pretty thin in this book, and expected more from the magic theme. It also annoyed me that the girl couldn¿t handle the magic and needed the guy to ¿rescue¿ her.
When I picked up this book, I knew I had read it before, but I couldn't remember a single thing about it, as opposed to The Changeover, also by Mahy, about which I can remember much of the plot, but never the name of the book (although I suppose I've fixed that now, haven't I?). That I found this book completely forgettable the first time around, and not much better the second, probably tells you everything you need to know.
This book was very good. The characters were well thought out and so was the plot. She did a good job of explaining everything and making it all connect. Although there were some parts that were a bit confusing, it still was a great book. It was so interesting and I just got caught up in wanting to see what was going to happen next.
'Alchemy' was very different than a lot of other books that I have read, but it was still very intriguing.