________________ CM . . . . Volume XXII Number 3 . . . . September 18, 2015


The Blackthorn Key.

Kevin Sands.
New York, NY: Aladdin Books (Distributed in Canada by Simon & Schuster Canada), 2015.
371 pp., hardcover, $21.99.
ISBN 978-1-4814-4651-8.

Grades 5-8 / Ages 10-13.

Review by Lisa Doucet.

**** /4



I was wondering why he'd stopped me for that, and then he said, his voice nearly a whisper, "Do I ask too much of you?"

I wasn't sure what he meant. "Master?"

"No one ever gave you the choice," he said. "The orphanage made you study. The Guild gave you the test. I brought you here. No one ever gave you the choice." He looked into my eyes. "If I sent you away, to walk a different path," he said, "somewhere you'd be safe, somewhere you couldn't be hurt...would you choose it?"

His question stunned me. Had any master ever allowed his apprentice to choose? I remembered his secret conversation with Hugh.

We have to make a choice and soon.

When the killings had started four months ago, Tom and I had teased each other that assassins were coming to get us. It didn't take long for our jokes to stop, as the reality of what was happening to our city began to weigh on us. Tonight, alone in the dark, I'd been more scared than I ever had before. I still was. Part of me wanted to go: go somewhere safe, no Stubb, no killers, nothing more to fear. But that was us, together. Leave Master Benedict behind? I couldn't. I wouldn't.

I said it with conviction, so he'd know it, too. "No, Master. I'm grateful for the life you've given me. Whatever happens, I want to stay with you."

Christopher Rowe's life as an apothecary's apprentice has been filled with exciting challenges and opportunities to put his bright, inquisitive mind to good use. Having been rescued from Applegate Orphanage when he was 11 by Master Benedict Blackthorn, Christopher cherishes the life that he lives with his firm but kind master. In their three years together, he has come to recognize and admire Master Benedict's sharp intellect and deep love of learning as well as his unfailing integrity and basic goodness. And he is well aware of how fortunate he is to have a master who treats him with kindness and respect, encouraging his thirst for knowledge (despite his occasional misadventures when his curiosity and adventurous spirit lead him astray). Christopher also relishes the puzzles and challenges Master Benedict routinely sets for him and enjoys dragging his best friend Tom along for the ride when his inquiring mind gets the better of him.

      Yet all is not as idyllic in Christopher's world as he might have liked to believe. A series of grisly murders has taken place in recent weeks throughout the city of London, and apothecaries seem to have been the main target. Rumours are afoot that an evil cult - the Cult of the Archangel - is behind the gruesome slayings. When Christopher expresses concern to his master, Master Benedict is quick to reassure him that there is no cult and no reason to fear. But when Master Benedict, himself, becomes the next victim, Christopher's life is thrown into complete turmoil. Devastated by this loss, homeless and afraid of what his future might hold, Christopher soon realizes that his master had a plan in place. Determined to solve this latest puzzle that his master has left for him, Christopher embarks on a quest to unravel Master Benedict's clues and find his killers.

      Kevin Sands' debut novel is, from start to finish, an energetic romp that will keep readers spellbound! As a historical mystery, the book is perfectly paced: action-packed and also cleverly-plotted, filled with intriguing codes and puzzles within puzzles. The story is rich with atmospheric tension as the protagonist tries to stay one step ahead of the danger that is seemingly lurking around every corner. Thoroughly satisfying as a mystery, it is equally commendable as a historical novel that creates a vivid portrait of London in the year 1665, capturing the sights and smells and sounds of the city. More importantly, it skilfully weaves into the story a sense of the social and political maneuverings of the time period (with King Charles II recently returned from his lengthy exile and the Puritans overthrown). Young readers will revel in Sands' descriptions of the Oak Apple Day festivities, the streets of London as well as the apothecaries' workshops.

      While The Blackthorn Key is noteworthy for its intriguing plot and lively descriptions that bring the setting to life, its greatest strength is its characters. Christopher is as winsome a protagonist as you could hope to find in middle grade fiction. Astute and ever-inquisitive, logical and intuitive, the scrapes that he gets into are the result of his over-exuberance rather than out of any willful mischief. His relationships with Master Benedict and with his best friend Tom are beautifully depicted and help create a strong sense of his loyalty, fidelity and strength of spirit. Sands also provides just enough information about the supporting cast of characters to make readers feel even more fully invested in Christopher's world.

      With so much going for it, The Blackthorn Key will appeal to a wide range of readers who will savour the mystery, root wholeheartedly for the main character and even be left with much to think about. Compelling, at times poignant, thought-provoking and a simply breathtaking adventure, this book truly has it all!

Highly Recommended.

Lisa is Co-Manager of Woozles Children's Bookstore in Halifax, NS.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.

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