[Review] The Blackthorn Key — Kevin Sands

Book Title                  The Blackthorn Key
Author:                        Kevin Sands
Number of pages:  384


blackthorn key - kevin sands - book cover“Tell no one what I’ve given you.”

Until he got that cryptic warning, Christopher Rowe was happy, learning how to solve complex codes and puzzles and creating powerful medicines, potions, and weapons as an apprentice to Master Benedict Blackthorn—with maybe an explosion or two along the way.

But when a mysterious cult begins to prey on London’s apothecaries, the trail of murders grows closer and closer to Blackthorn’s shop. With time running out, Christopher must use every skill he’s learned to discover the key to a terrible secret with the power to tear the world apart.

(re: Goodreads @ The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands)

Should this book be picked up? the tl;dr review:

– Frenetically paced mystery with solvable puzzles providing an interactive reading experience
– Hist-fic world building is rustic, has medieval flair, and the tone is vividly portrayed given it’s time; mild “fade to black/off-screen” gore
– Characters and relationships (i.e. bromance) feel organic. However, there isn’t a strong female presence
– There is a pigeon named Bridget. You will have animal/pet feels
– Story is self-contained (though part of a series) and is courageously resilient, full of hilarious tomfoolery, and painfully tragic


Initial Thoughts

It seems like stories with animal sidekicks will, without fail, garner 4+ stars from me. NO COMPLAINTS HEREEEEEE.

Full disclosure: I received an advanced reader copy of The Blackthorn Key from the Book Blog Ontario Meet-Up. I extend thanks to Simon and Schuster for providing me with the opportunity to review this book.



Christopher Rowe, a once-orphan now budding apprentice to Master Benedict Blackthorn is plunged into the gritty underbelly of the alchemical world when a string of murders claim the lives of prominent apothecaries. With the perpetrator at large and signs pointing to the Blackthorn shop, Christopher finds himself with the key to uncovering the mystery behind the disturbing deaths and the scheme at the heart of it all.


London 1665: cobblestone roads, stone mausoleums, imposing cathedrals, dusty wooden shelves lined with material knick-knacks, and a bird house for the greatest avian side-kick ever. Sands has crafted an explosive (literally) alchemical historical-fiction with medieval flair and a tone that vividly portrays its time. The story doesn’t inundate readers (considering target audience) with religious diatribes that detract from the cat-and-mouse narrative. 


I’ll admit: I don’t usually do hist-fic because the past is blergh (interpret that how you will). The Blackthorn Key, I found, was packed with intrigue and credit goes to the story, the adventurous and impeccable pacing, and the penmanship to weave a page-turning experience. This book elicits a range of feels: it’s courageously resilient, full of hilarious tomfoolery, and painfully tragic.

The story made me cry. If that’s not a powerful thing…then I don’t know what is.

The coolest thing is that readers can [for the most part] unlock the puzzles before going forward, as if it were an interactive experience. The narrative provides the codes and kinks to uncover the mystery before you turn the page. Note: it’s not a gimmick. The exposition pulls you into the eyes [and world] of Christopher Rowe and connects readers to the conflict in a smart way.

That being said, the writing may not be for the faint of heart.

What I will say in terms of gore is this: as a kid, I was immersed in a lot of violence through videogames and multimedia. Am I suggesting that this book will be fine for all MG-kids? Not at all. This book has bleak as shit moments but you don’t witness the brutality. It’s like a “fade to black”. This is just a discretionary warning to those incapable of stomaching the high-stakes game of survival. It is in the context of its time and not as censored as things seem to be based on its intended audience.


Christopher Rowe is simply precious and I adored his voice. He’s emotionally invested to a life that has given him more than just borrowed time. There is so much to root for as the story promotes the cultivation of adolescent experimentation and ingenuity.  Christopher isn’t a special snowflake; he’s not the only one who could have unlocked the mystery. The puzzles are his to crack because he’s the product of initiative and work ethic, and his development is one keenly demonstrated by action. (Subtext: learning is important but you should also blow things up in the process.)

The bromance is sublime. Christopher and Tom are like two peas in a pod. Their friendship can easily be mistaken as blood-related due to loyalty and it’s wholly organic. I’d call Tom a comic relief but that would short-sell his importance to Christopher.

Bridget is one badass scene stealer. This pigeon deserves all the love and then some. If you appreciate the value of Manchee for Todd’s character in the Chaos Walking Trilogy (Patrick Ness) you will surely love every feather of this flappy bird.

If there’s one thing that can be considered amiss, it’s that there’s no real female presence. Aside from Tom’s siblings and his mother, the only female with potential of a role is an orphan girl with a line or two. The implication is that this can be considered a “book about boys for boys”. It’s so much more than that.


This book punched me in the face with feels. And then did it again, and again. While this first installment is a self-contained story, it’s sequel explores the Great Plague of London [in 1665]. You don’t need to worry about cliffhangers. So, yeah, if there’s one middle-grade title you should considering reading in 2015, it’s Kevin Sands’ The Blackthorn Key. If not because I told you to, then for the explosions…or the bromance…or the interactive mystery…or most importantly: for Bridget, a damn pigeon.


connect: afterthoughtAn // twitter  |  anotherafterthought // goodreads



19 thoughts on “[Review] The Blackthorn Key — Kevin Sands”

    1. It doesn’t describe the gritty processes to concoct the bi-product but rather is detailed enough that it doesn’t overload you with ingredients and different recipes that show up [early on] and is applied to the story as it progresses. You do witness the MC’s mind churning everything he’s learned and applying that in his adventure.

      Hope that helps!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. For some reason, I thought you’d already reviewed this but I guess you’ve just been mentioning it too much 🙂

    Pretty much as soon as I see the words ‘historical fiction’ I’m like SOLD! But besides that, the summary of the book sounds super interesting. Also, that pigeon. I’m in love already ❤


    1. This book was read a month ago (backlogged) but yes you are right, I have mentioned it a lot and I hope you consider it, Jenna! Although I hope it’s not a “Fans of the Impossible Life” scenario where you hate the shit out of it on my accord of hype LOL.

      I didn’t know you were big on Hist-Fic! PLUS. You should FIND Knife of Never Letting Go and also read that too. Pet feels EVERYWHERE.


      1. Omg I have so many books to read because of everybody’s pet feels… I bought The Scorpio Races because Aentee said there was an awesome pony… I’ll wander into the middle-grade section and look for The Blackthorn Key. I doubt any stores would have it though. Because Australia.

        I promise to find the rest of Chaos Walking next week! Hopefully they’ll have restocked by now. But you never know. Because Australia.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Your review has sold me completely. MANCHEE. I adore Manchee so much, and it sounds like this lovely pigeon will warm my heart immediately too! And any book that will make Joey cry is a book I am willing to try. (Did you like my rhyme? 😉)

    FABULOUS REVIEW AS ALWAYS JOEY. You never fail to persuade me on a book you’re passionate about. And this one sounds great.


    1. It has whiffs of fantasy that I think you’d enjoy if you’re even slightly into medieval-ish potions and the like. It balances the tomfoolery fun of adolescent boys with the mystery of the conflict really well (I thought).

      AND YES THE PIGEON OH MY GODDDDDDDDDDD. Really high up there with Manchee!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I find I don’t often reach out towards historical fiction (no particular reason why though) but I’m always open to recommendations! And your review has me sold on this one for sure. I haven’t heard of this before, but it seems great! 🙂 Definitely going to be checking this out.
    Amazing review as always!


    1. Thanks, Analee! I honestly wouldn’t have even heard of this book if it weren’t for the community. I won’t say that I actively stray away from historical fiction but I just think it’s something to do with the times that I don’t really care much for I guess? So with The Blackthorn Key, even if it’s rooted in history, it thrives in the conflict and fun that I didn’t really consider it hist-fic any more than it is truly a MG-fantasy.

      (I hope that word vomit made sense.)


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