Book Title: Mark of the Plague (The Blackthorn Key #02) Author: Kevin Sands Number of pages: 544
The Black Death has returned to London, spreading disease and fear through town. A mysterious prophet predicts the city’s ultimate doom—until an unknown apothecary arrives with a cure that actually works. Christopher’s Blackthorn shop is chosen to prepare the remedy. But when an assassin threatens the apothecary’s life, Christopher and his faithful friend Tom are back to hunting down the truth, risking their lives to untangle the heart of a dark conspiracy.
And as the sickness strikes close to home, the stakes are higher than ever before…
(re: Goodreads @ Mark of the Plague by Kevin Sands)
Should this book be picked up? the tl;dr review:
– Can be read standalone (not recommended for context however)
– Layered mystery with less reliance on puzzles (though there are some) and a greater emphasis on antagonists to push the conflict
– Addition of a female secondary character; no romance
– First POV narrative can sometimes read as though protagonist is withholding information from the reader
– Pigeon feels.
My body was not ready for pigeon feels.
Disclaimer: I received an ARC of Mark of the Plague from Simon and Schuster Canada.
Mark of the Plague is a worthy follow-up to The Blackthorn Key; which was [arguably] my favourite book of 2015. I say “follow-up” instead of sequel because Mark can be read standalone if you so choose; especially if you’re looking for a one-off MG mystery with a historical nod (re: London Plague of 1665).
The learning curve is not steep or cumbersome as Sands pens the info-dumping with precision to only highlight narrative plot points and apothecary tinctures/ingredients introduced in the last book without going word vomit projectile on the reader. It’s more of a gentle reminder; an “a-ha!” moment.
If there was also any educational learning from this, then awesome (but that’s not something I really focused on lolol).
The scenery remains largely unchanged with a few additions to the London we previously knew. But what should be noted is the continued use of limited descriptions to visually flourish and/or paint the structures in and around the plot. This means that it’s not overwritten to create a set-in-stone aesthetic. The gritty kinks of the world is at the mercy of the reader’s imagination.
The staple of this series is the interwoven puzzles, trickery, and smoke and mirrors around every corner. While these mental games are a mainstay in this series, I would argue that there’s more of a human quality to the mystery in Mark of the Plague. Unlike the first book which focused heavily on unlocking each puzzle to move forward, here the puzzles do not necessarily define the central conflict. This is a refreshing change whereby it is the grey areas in questioning “who is trustworthy?” (to the MC) that propels the story.
There was also some elements of the fantastical (or maybe it was just described as such) that suspended a bit of belief as I’m sure this is low-fantasy at highest and definitely historical through and through.
Either I’m a more picky and discerning reader or this issue just stuck out to me but there are scenes when I felt as though Christopher’s first person narrative unfairly withheld information from the reader as it came to be realized. It’s understandable when the character themselves are in the dark (re: confusion and mystery) but when they know or think they know and the narration dismisses it to be divulged later on, it’s a bad tease.
Mark of the Plague is over 500 pages in length. That’s generally long for many MG-lit. However, the pacing is snappy — each page akin to snapping your fingers and boom next page — with so much explosive action and childhood-wonder-and-banter unfolding each chapter that propels this follow up to be another unputdownable read.
There’s something about following the antics of Christopher and Tom which reads very compellingly. With the stakes being higher than ever in Mark, their survival and bromantic bond is challenged against the The Black Plague sweeping across London. I enjoyed the steady grow experienced by these kiddy hooligans to demonstrate a myriad of positive trades from humility, determination, courage, and [more often than not] honesty.
When I spoke to Kevin Sands at a signing (a year before this book was released, actually), I asked if there would have been any additions of a female voice to ground the testosterone and tomfoolery of Christopher and Tom. And there is (someone from the previous story!). The addition of Sally as a platonic friend is incredibly value added as it provides another dynamic to nuance Christopher’s voice as they’re both orphans from Cripplegate. There’s no romance at this point and any at this time would have been red flagged as unnecessary instalove.
If there’s one problem, it’s that I needed more Bridget (the pigeon).
Though I pride myself on being skeptical enough to scope out predictable twists, Mark of the Plague featured a nuanced multi-layer mystery that caught me off guard. I was okay reading into the first few layers of twists but by the end, when you’re four/five levels deep of complex relationships and puzzles, even I was pleasantly surprised with how it was executed.
Overall, Mark of the Plague by Kevin Sands is an exhilarating joyride that pushes the limits of Christopher Rowe, the middle grade phenom of a hero, while gradually growing the ensemble and world around the Blackthorn legacy.
Please also note: I am still #1 Bridget fan. Fight me.