Title: The Blackthorn Key
Author: Kevin Sands
Publisher: Aladdin, Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing
Publication Date: September 2015
Synopsis from Goodreads:
“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.
Although it’s not often that I read and review middle grade fiction, Sands’ The Blackthorn Key caught my attention because it’s so much like all of the novels I read in my childhood. Christopher Rowe is an apothecary’s apprentice. His master, Benedict Blackthorn, encourages him to learn, giving him books and puzzles to sharpen his mind. Christopher works in the apothecary shop, learning the tricks of the trade to one day be a master apothecary himself. But a series of murders among the apothecary guild has everyone on edge. Friends are dying around them and their world is unstable. No one knows why the murdered are targets or who will be next. Christopher discovers a hidden secret that is so terrible, that it may change the world forever.
What I loved about Sands’ world was that it was quick and fast moving. Danger lurk around every corner, but the characters are smart and thoughtful. They think through their options before making a move. Christopher is a smart, intuitive character in whom his master believes. Benedict challenges Christopher to learn more, and it is these lessons that push Christopher to look further and dig deeper throughout the story. Christopher’s friendship with Tom shows what true loyalty is. Tom is a great friend to Christopher and is essential to his survival in times of turmoil.
The characters, however, are not without their faults. Christopher is often too trusting, putting himself in harms way because he puts faith in the wrong people. He shows himself to be a child, just learning to make his way in a violent adult world, and these flaws make him the perfect character for this story. He makes mistakes and faces setbacks, but these experiences help him to grow in courage, strength, and wit. He survives in a dangerous and threatening world.
Overall, a fun and exciting read. For middle grade readers, it’s a step back in time into a perilous world with a character who is likeable, intelligent, and always learning. It’s a story of puzzles and riddles that will have readers on a breathless and challenging hunt for truth.