Monday, April 16, 2018

Mark of the Plague (a Blackthorn Key Adventure #2) by Kevin Sands

In 2015, The Blackthorn Key, the first book in the Blackthorn Key series, not only received starred reviews, but it was also the Middle Grade Fiction Cybils winner and for good reason. It is a fascinating action-packed mystery. Christopher Rowe, 14, an orphan, is chosen to be an apprentice to apothecary Benedict Blackthorn. But when Master Benedict is murdered, Christopher sets out to discover who did it and why. It's a mystery that requires Christopher to use his knowledge of Latin, puzzles, ciphers, and codes, taught to him by Master Benedict. The action takes place over the course of six days - Thursday, May 28, 1665 to Tuesday, June 2, 1665, important dates for the story. Now, just a few months later, Christopher is faced with a new mystery in Book 2, Mark of the Plague.

Having inherited Master Benedict's home and apothecary shop doesn't help Christopher very much when the plague returns to London in early September 1665 - Christopher can't sell any possible remedies because he is an apprentice without a master or license of his own. And without any business, Christopher has no money to buy food until given some coins to tide him over by Isaac Chandler, an old friend of Master Benedict. But Isaac also gives Christopher two pieces of news - first, that there is a prophet in London who claims he can predict the course of the plague and who it will infect next, and second, that Master Benedict has left Christopher a treasure. But where or what the treasure is no one knows. It becomes another of Master Benedict's coded mysteries for Christopher to solve.

After buying some food with Isaac's money, Christopher and Tom, his best friend and the son of the baker, find themselves in the middle of a riot. A quack selling a cure for the plague is brought down by an apothecary named Galen, who claims he has also found a cure and plans on giving it out free of change if the Lord Mayor and magistrates of London accept it. In the midst of the riot, Chrisopher witnesses a young girl being beaten by two men. Recognizing her as Sally from Cripplegate, the same orphanage he had been in, Christopher and Tom take her back to the apothecary shop. And that's when Christopher notices that his jars of ingredients that are always kept in meticulous order have been moved around. But why and by whom?

On top of everything else, Christopher learns that his apothecary shop has been chosen by the magistrates for Galen to produce his plague cure along with pretty ample funding. Galen insists on choosing his own assistants, and Christopher soon finds himself barred from his own shop.

It doesn't take long for Christopher, Tom, and Sally to become suspicious of both Galen and the prophet Melchior, and soon the three friends are on a mission to solve the mystery of who they are and what they want. And after Melchior predicts that someone Christopher loves will soon die, and Tom becomes sick, his distrust of the prophet increases, especially when he finds Tom's house guarded by one of Melchior's men.

Christopher has a full plate of mysteries to figure out and it seems his circle of helpers is getting smaller and smaller as the plague is claiming more and more lived every day. But why do both Galen and Melchior light on Blackthorn's apothecary? Could Master Benedict have been working on a plague cure or perhaps they know something about his treasure?

I am happy to say that Mark of the Plague is every bit as exciting as The Blackthorn Key. Once again, Sands has set the story within a relatively short time span - Monday, August 31, 1665 to Thursday, September 10, 1665 - and gives the total death toll for each day. No coincidence in the time - the 1665 plague hit its peak in London in September.

Christopher remains the same great character we met in Book 1, and fans will be glad to see Tom is back and to meet Sally, both characters add a sense of humor to what could otherwise bee too a story for middle grade readers. Let's face it, life in the 1600s wasn't easy, particularly is you are an orphan and the plague has come to town, so having loyal best friends really does help.

There were lots of codes and ciphers to solve in the first book, but not so many in this one. It's more like a straight mystery, but of course, when it comes to figuring out what and where Master Benedict's treasure is, Christoper has to put his puzzle solving skills to good use.

I did think Sands did a much better job with the historical facts in this novel. The plague brought out a lot of charlatans looking to capitalize on people's fears and Sands makes it is easy to see how they were able to pull of their scams in the face of an virulent disease that no one knew the cause of or even how it spread. One interesting fact is Sally describing Melchior as the Bird Man, because he wears a mask that looks like a bird. In fact, that is exactly what plague doctors did do:

A plague doctor wearing his 'beak mask'. This mask would have been filled with lavender or other strong smelling substances which were thought to protect him from disease
So, it you are looking for a historically accurate, exciting mystery, look no further than Mark of the Plague and the adventures of Christopher Rowe. And if you don't like series books, no problem, this works well as a stand alone novel.

The publisher, Simon & Schuster, has provided is a useful Reading Group Guide for both Books 1 & 2 that can be printed from the publisher's website

This book is recommended for readers age 10+
This book was bought for my personal library

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