Monday, March 21, 2016

2015 MG Fiction #Cybils Award Winner: The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands

It's 1665 and Christopher Rowe, 14, is a pretty lucky boy.  The former orphan from Cripplegate Orphanage was picked by apothecary Master Benedict Blackthorn to be his apprentice.  But he is learning how to do more than just make medicinals for the people of London, he's taught Latin and is also begin trained to easily solve puzzles, ciphers and codes.

Master Blackthorn is very pleased with Christopher's work, and has treated him very well.  And in fact, instead of beating him as most other apothecaries would, rather his esteem for Christopher is heightened when he learns that his apprentice is able to decoded the recipe for making gunpowder.  

But now, apothecaries all over London are turning up dead, gruesomely murdered, and Christopher fears for Master Benedict, especially when he is attacked on his way home one night.   Rumor has it that the killings are being done by a group called the Cult of the Archangel, but before Christopher can ask Master Benedict about it, the apothecary suddenly begins yelling at him about a mistake, hits Christopher across the face and sends him on a meaningless errand.  But when Christopher returns, he finds the apothecary shop ransacked, and his master dead.

Confused and crushed by Master Benedict's sudden change in behavior and subsequent death, Christopher finds himself without a home and apprenticeship, and facing a very uncertain future.  But after finding a coded message from his master in the shop's ledger book, the last line of which admonished Christopher to tell no one about it, he is determined to solve Master Benedict's murder, luckily, with the help of his only friend Tom,

One of my guilty pleasures has always been reading Medieval mysteries and this well researched debut novel ranks right up there with the best of them.  Not only that, but it is full of my other guilty pleasure - cryptology.   Mix together a personable, clever main character, a faithful and trustworthy best friend, plus realistic descriptions of London in the mid 1600s, and you have my ideal novel.

The main part of the mystery takes place over six day,s beginning on Thursday, May 28, 1665, Ascension Day to Tuesday, June 2, 1665, The Feast of St. Erasmus, the Protector.  These are an important 6 days, having to do with the restoration of the English monarchy.  The (fictional) Cult of the Archangel rejects the idea of the monarchy and wants the power of God Himself through alchemy and given the deaths of so many apothecaries, would stop at nothing to get it.   This is what Christopher and Tom are up against, and to make matter worse, Christopher is suspected of killing Master Benedict.

While I didn't think the historical part of the novel was explained satisfactorily as the could have been (I had to look up a few things), the codes were and I think any one who enjoys codes will really like that aspect of the novel. But the absolute best part of The Blackthorn Key was that it didn't rely of fantasy to create an gripping, skillfully written novel. (not that's there's anything wrong with speculative fiction, it's just so prevalent in Medieval stories, and realistic fiction is nice for a change).

This is a serious novel but not without some humor.  Tom has a bunch of sisters who seem to be quite taken with Christopher.   And Tom's mother is a Mollie Weasley-type in her kindness towards the orphan Christopher.  Tom's father, so quick to hit children, his own and Christopher, is a good example of how abusive adults were towards children, considering them more a property than human.  And the descriptions of London's streets is so vivid, you can practically smell the stench of garbage and human waste wafting up from the page.

The Blackthorn Key is a definite winner.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was borrowed from the NYPL


  1. I've been hearing such good things about this... I really should get around to reading it!

  2. excellent review! I too have heard good reviews and glad to find that you just reviewed it. This is next one on our list :)


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