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