Even before I opened this book, I thought it was cleverly designed to appeal to both boys and girls - the creepy skull on the front cover (and is that blood running down the corners ?) will undoubtedly appeal to boys but the silver shininess and the flowery motif will be appealing to girls too. As a 30-something mum, I am way out of the target audience bracket but I wanted to see what all the fuss was about so sat down to read it ... and couldn't put it down !! Even as an adult, I was swept up into the creepy world of the Guild of Medical Herbalists and their strange magical gardens. It was vaguely reminiscent of the great classics of my own childhood, like 'The Secret Garden' or 'The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe' but the story was totally original and fascinating.
The historical setting of the story is distinctly olde-worlde but the central character, Thomas, is totally timeless and youngsters everywhere will empathise with him. OK, so he gets sent off to be an apprentice in a herbalist's shop, which is something they'll never experience, but his feelings and reactions are still totally identifiable. He is thrown into a strange, sinister world of friendship and betrayal, magic and witchery, murder and treachery, peopled with flamboyant characters and weird and wonderful botanical life. The writing is easy to follow but not at all "dumbed down", as is often the case with teen fiction. I wonder how many teen-readers will pick up on the meanings behind the names like Albion, Eden, Brocéliande, etc !
My original aim in reading this was to check it out as suitable reading material for my daughter. She's only 8 but loves reading Jacqueline Wilson-type books which are generally aimed at teens. However, this is definitely out of her league. Some of the vocabulary is quite challenging (in a good way) and I think she'd be a bit creeped out by some of the nightmarish bits, like the thought form shadows coming out of people's eyes ! So until she gets a bit older, I've passed it on to a (grown-up) friend of mine, and she's loving it just as much as I did ! So I'd definitely say the appeal stretches way beyond the teen market !
Simon & Schuster UK, May 2009
star rating : 5/5