________________ CM . . . . Volume XXIII Number 14 . . . . December 9, 2016


The Potion Diaries. [Previously published as Madly.]

Amy Alward.
New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2015/2016.
374 pp., trade pbk., $14.99.
ISBN 978-1-4814-4379-1.

Subject Headings:

Grades 5-9 / Ages 10-14.

Review by Mary Thomas.

*** /4



"Princess Evelyn has been poisoned."

Shockwaves ripple through the room and my hand flies to my mouth. This is the last thing that I expected. The royal family is untouchable. The palace is one of the most secure buildings in Nova. Who could break down the magical barriers put up by one of the world's most powerful Talented families?

"Is she all right?" someone asks.

"We don't know. But we do know this … " Renel hesitates. He walks over to the center of the room where there is a tall column of crimson velvet cloth. He pulls the cloth away, revealing an immense curved horn, as long as my arm and black as lacquered ebony. Intricate hunting scenes are carved into the bone, and thin gold bands circle both ends. It floats in the center of the room, encased in a beam of golden light. It is breathtakingly beautiful. And it can only mean one thing. "Auden's Horn has awoken. The Princess's life is in mortal danger, and the horn has called you here to join in a Wilde Hunt for the cure."

A frisson of electricity runs through me. Can this really be happening? But I don't want to question it. Wilde Hunts create alchemy rock stars. My spine straightens, my arms fall by my sides, and I hold my head a little higher.

"Over my dead body … The Kemis don't participate in royal goose chases," [my grandfather] says through gritted teeth. "We don't need to be here, as we won't be participating." There is rage and defiance and even a touch of fear in my grandad's voice, and it sends chills down my spine.

The alternative world of Nova comes with all the usual twenty-first-century accoutrements: planes, computers, internet, etc. To these, however, add the Talented folk who can work magic, have an almost instantaneous, and very expensive, transport system that operates through keeping eye contact with the Talent doing the transporting, and a princess who can devise forbidden love potions. Knowing that she must marry, and having observed her own parents' loveless union, she concocts a potion to add to the drink of a boy she likes and is easy with, but whom she doesn't love and who doesn't love her. Naturally things go wrong: she drinks the potion instead of Zain, and then the first thing she sees is her own reflection. Oops!

      Enter the apothecaries, the alchemists who mix magical potions but who are not Talented, since they would affect and be affected by the magical materials they work with. Most of these now work with synthetics, but not the Kemi family, of whom Samantha is the youngest, still merely an apprentice to her grandfather. The king is desperate to save his daughter from her narcissistic infatuation, especially as her personal magic is so strong it is likely to tear the kingdom physically apart if she is thwarted. Therefore, he calls on an ancient tradition, that of the Wilde Hunt, a competition only set in motion if a member of the royal family is fatally threatened. It has not been invoked for a couple of generations. On the previous occasion, the Kemis were cheated out of victory – their potion was stolen by the CEO of the chemical company that now manufactures synthetic materials for almost all alchemical potions. The loss not only did the Kemis out of their reward but has practically done them out of their livelihood, since their concentration on natural ingredients (if you can call the hair of a unicorn 'natural'!) is now out of fashion. However, the princess had indicated in her potions diary, that personal account book kept by all potion mixers, that she had used only natural ingredients. Since the antidote is a 'mirror cure', i.e., the exact same brew, the Kemis are back in the picture.

      The Potion Diaries is the story of the weak against the strong, the good against the expedient, and evil against them both. The search for the right ingredients for the antidote is made more difficult by the fact that the antidote must, in fact, mirror the original potion produced by the princess – and she's certainly not telling – and all recipes for such potions have been ordered destroyed because they are so dangerous, frequently leading to unexpected and disastrous consequences. Samantha is an exceptionally talented (with a lower case t) mixer of potions and with a feel for what would have to be included in such a cure, but the leading synth manufacturer has resources far beyond the reach of a poor apothecary, and the king's sister, next in line for the throne after the princess and very T/talented, has enough hate to manage almost anything, including the death of the princess.

      The result is a fine adventure story ranging across a world which is not quite the one we know, but has echoes. (Zambi in Africa for example? 'Abominables' who live in the high mountains?) Kids will love it for its impossibilities, as well as for its very gentle love interest of the Montague-Capulet variety, and its insight into the difficulties that come with position, brains, or pretty much anything that makes one person better at something than anyone else. It is also exciting: there are fights, avalanches, fires, burglaries, and all the usual things that come in fantasy novels. The novel is told mostly in Samantha's voice, but the occasional chapter from Princess Evelyn makes the desperation of the monarchs and their advisors more plausible as well as enlisting our sympathy for her plight. It's not a great book, but it is a good one that will be avidly read and re-read by (mostly) pre- and early-teen girls.


Mary Thomas lives and works in schools in Winnipeg, MB, but once upon a time she trained as a chemist. All this mixing of potions brought back memories!

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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