Archie Greene and the Magician's Secret by D. D. Everest
Faber & Faber, 2014. ISBN 9780571309054
(Age: Yr 4+) In a secret world deep beneath the hallowed halls of the Bodleian Library in Oxford lies the Museum of Magical Miscellany, a repository of all the world's magical books and artefacts saved from the fire that destroyed the Library of Alexandria and then again from the Great Fire of London in 1666. It is into this world that Archie Greene finds himself when he receives a mysterious gift on his 12th birthday, a gift that has been waiting 400 years to be delivered and which turns Archie's life upside-down so that within 24 hours he has been uprooted from the comfort of his grandmother's house (and she has gone on a mysterious mission) to the quirky Oxford residence of his previously unknown cousins Bramble and Thistle Foxe. He discovers that not only does he bear the mark of the Flame Keepers of Alexandria - those who find, mind and bind the magic books that are not yet within the safe confines of the Museum - but he is also a book whisperer. He can hear the words of the books as they rustle their pages to tell their secrets.
Immediately, Archie is thrown into a tricky situation as he discovers that his birthday book is one of the Terrible Tomes, one of the seven most dangerous books of dark-magic ever written and one which the Greaders (those who seek the magic for their own wicked purposes) would dearly love to have. As he learns more and discovers the secrets of the books, Archie realises the important role he has to play in protecting and preserving the ancient lores so the magic arts remain safe. He also starts to learn a little of his own life, something his grandmother has tried to keep a secret since his parents and sister died as she protects him from the past.
Archie is a likeable lad who is, predictably, bewildered at this new life and all that is happening to him, which makes it easy for Everest to build the fantasy world so the reader learns about it along with Archie. Did you know there are three types of magic? The first is natural magic which comes from the creatures and plants and forces of nature; the second is mortal magic, that created by magicians using instruments and other devices; and the third - the most dangerous - is supernatural magic which draws on the power of the spirits and other supernatural beings. There are also five lores to be adhered to so there is not another disaster like that of 1666. As all this is as new to Archie as it is to the reader, there is both empathy and understanding as he makes choices that he believes are for the best and we learn about being brave and courageous and he is well supported by the other well-drawn characters in the story. And there is just enough real history in the storyline to make it all tantalisingly true.
This is a story of magic and mystery that has more twists and turns than the underground passages of the Museum of Magical Miscellany. It is a well-written page turner that has a host of characters, both good and evil, and right from the start the reader is never really sure just who can be trusted and who is not quite who they seem. While, on the surface, it seems an easy read for the young independent reader, it may be more suited to those who are able to follow various plot strands and multiple characters simultaneously. It would make an excellent read-aloud, encouraging listeners to be not only waiting for the next chapter but also the next addition to the series.
Parallels will be drawn with another series involving an orphaned boy who discovers he "has the magic" and has to fight against the evil mortals but that's pretty much where the similarities end. This is a fresh and new story where "bookshelves are enchanted, librarians are sorcerers and spells come to life" that is not quite as dark as You-Know-Whom. Archie Greene will become a favourite and I will be waiting for Archie Greene and the Alchemist's Curse, coming later this year.