Let’s get one thing out of the way, before we start the review proper. It is almost completely impossible to write a review of Archie Greene and the Magician’s Secret without using the words “Harry” or “Potter”. The titular character is an orphan who has grown up in the care of a relative who does not want him to know that his parents belonged to a magical society that runs parallel to (and hidden from) modern Britain. He has a very British, slightly old-fashioned first name, and a common Anglo-Saxon surname. On his birthday, he receives a mysterious letter that opens his eyes to his heritage, and launches him on an adventure into a strange institution where he is taught the ways of magic; along the way, he makes friends with a boy and a girl who share his gifts, discovers that he has an unusual magical language ability, and foils the plans of a dark wizard to seize a powerful magical artefact.
So let’s just take it as read that there are an enormous number of similarities to Harry Potter, and judge the book on its own merits.
Archie Greene lives with his Gran. On his twelfth birthday, a mysterious book arrives in the post, along with a letter that tells him to take it to a particular bookshop in Oxford. Archie’s Gran tells him to go, and to visit his relatives the Foxes, who (by no coincidence, as you will see) live in Oxford. It turns out the bookshop is a front organisation for the Museum of Magical Miscellany, an institution dedicated to the location and preservation of the magical books that survived the fire in the Great Library of Alexandria in 48BC. Archie discovers that his aunt, uncle and two cousins Thistle and Bramble are all involved in this magical society, and within a short time he himself becomes an apprentice to Old Zeb the bookbinder. Archie discovers that he has the rare magical ability to speak to books – he’s a book whisperer – and soon there are rum goings-on and dark deeds afoot. Does it have anything to do with the book he received on his birthday? What does it mean, that he’s the first book whisperer for hundreds of years?
There are magical creatures, suspicious magicians, and dark family secrets as well as burgeoning friendship with his cousins Thistle and Bramble. Archie has to learn quickly and trust his courage to overcome all the obstacles in his path and foil the plots of the evil wizards.
The mythological background is nicely thought out. The magic of the world of Archie Greene is based on books – so anyone who had a sneaking suspicion that books were somehow magical is going to feel right at home. Books can talk – if you’re a book whisperer, that is – and fly, and manifest heroes and monsters from their pages. The history of these magical books goes back thousands of years to the Great Library of Alexandria – in this history of the world, Alexander the Great wasn’t just a conqueror, but also a collector of magical artefacts, and magical books in particular. When the library burnt in 48BC, the magical books were corrupted by the dark wizard Barzak’s sorcery, so were brought to Oxford, where the Museum of Magical Miscellany was set up to keep them safe. Evil wizards known as “Greaders” – greedy readers – still try to get their hands on the most powerful of books, even though the damage they could cause is almost without limit.
On the clasp of Archie’s book, and on the title page of this book, is a symbol:
This is an actual magical symbol, the Monas Hieroglyphica of Dr John Dee, the Elizabethan magician and court astrologer. It symbolises the unity of the cosmos – in it, you can find the astrological symbols for the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn – Uranus and Neptune hadn’t been discovered when Dr Dee was alive. The real Dr Dee is mostly known for being duped by a charlatan called Edward Kelley who convinced Dee that he had the power to communicate with celestial beings, including teaching him Enochian, the language of the angels.
Dr Dee plays an important part in the story – and just like in the real history of Dr Dee, he is duped by a miscreant playing on his desire to learn Enochian.
I liked these little touches of magical mythology in the book, from the concept of Alexander the Great rampaging across the globe in his search for magical books to Dr Dee’s gullibility and desire for esoteric knowledge leading him astray. These touches add a depth to the book that raise it above the Harry Potter clone that it might otherwise have become. Even without those, however, the book has a strong story, with interesting, colourful characters and a cracking pace – it’s a real page-turner of the book, and I devoured it in three sittings.
Let’s not forget about the illustrations – James de la Rue has produced some stellar work here. The full-page illustrations dotted throughout the book complement the text perfectly. I particularly like the way he draws bookshelves – the picture of the bookshop in Chapter 22, A Midnight Excursion, with its shadowy hatching on the books is claustrophobic and atmospheric, while the illustration in Chapter 30, Magic Spills, where the books serve as the backdrop to the monsters bursting from their pages, is dynamic and full of energy. You can see some of his work, including some of the illustrations from Archie Greene, (although unfortunately not the two I mentioned) on his website.
In short, forget about Potter, and spend some time in the company of young Mr Greene for a change. It’ll be a magical experience.