CM . . . . Volume XXIII Number 10 . . . . November 11, 2016
After enduring the recent loss of his master and mentor, Benedict Blackthorn, Christopher Rowe would like nothing more than to resume his training as an apothecary's apprentice. Unfortunately, these are dark days in the city of London. The black plague has descended upon the city once again, and normal daily life has all but ground to a halt as the wealthy have fled in droves and the poor and those who remain live in constant fear of coming in contact with the dreaded disease. Many shops and businesses have closed, and even the Guild Masters have abandoned Guild Hall and hightailed it out of London. The Apothecarie's Guild was supposed to assign Christopher a new master, but in their absence he is unable to continue his training or to even sell items from the shop. So despite having inherited Blackthorn from his late master, Christopher has no means to support himself and must not only worry about the plague but also simply how he will survive. However, a surprise visit from a friend of his master's yields a small glimmer of hope: Master Benedict had left a letter for Christopher in which he reveals that there is a hidden treasure awaiting his discovery. With no knowledge of what exactly that treasure might be, Christopher vows to find it. With his best friend Tom warily in tow, he begins his quest.
However, as the two undertake the search for Master Blackthorn's treasure, they find themselves in the very midst of yet another mystery, or series of mysteries. These relate to the plague, itself. First there is the strange new plague doctor, Melchior, who is being hailed as a prophet for his uncanny ability to predict the plague's next victims. Then there is Galen, an apothecary who appears to have found a cure for the plague. Soon Christopher, Tom and Sally (a former orphan whom they rescue from the streets) are caught up in the curious happenings as Blackthorn becomes the centre of Galen's work preparing his secret remedy. Then an assassination attempt is made on Galen's life. and the trio become even more suspicious, for who would try to kill the only man who might be able to cure the plague? Christopher and his friends slowly but surely put the pieces of this new puzzle together as they work their way inexorably towards the truth.
This stunning sequel in every way lives up to the accolades accorded to its predecessor, The Blackthorn Key. While Mark of the Plague picks up Christopher's story shortly after the events of the first book, it is still capable of being read as a standalone. his second story revolves entirely around the current series of events that are taking place in London, and any references to the previous book are adeptly explained in the context of the present narrative. Readers of this book who have not read The Blackthorn Key will undoubtedly be anxious to do so, and they will be no less captivated by it.
In addition to being an utterly satisying follow-up, Mark of the Plague is a genuinely exhilarating mystery adventure tale that simultaneously brings history vividly to life. Although the book is a lengthy 500+ pages, it is fast-paced and action-packed, a whirlwind of entertaining and unexpected exploits. The pacing never falters, and the plot is carefully crafted so that the reader enjoys every step of the journey as the characters weave their way through this new puzzle.
Of course, the characters also make this book a joy to read! Christopher remains as delightful a protagonist as he was in his preliminary outing. Master Blackthorn's faith in his abilities were clearly not misplaced as Christopher once again proves himself to be clever and curious, astute and perceptive, as well as endearingly earnest and loyal and honest almost to a fault. He also provides moments of levity and humour in the midst of the grim and gritty realities that are being depicted. Once again, the friendship between Christopher and Tom is a key element of the story and is skillfully drawn. The addition of Sally is an added bonus: she is a perfect companion for these two and is, herself, a staunch ally whose resilience and fortitude make her noteworthy in her own right.
While the mystery always remains the central focus, Sands beautifully depicts the relationships between the various characters, making the story feel richer and fuller as a result. Similarly, although he doesn't burden the story with lengthy descriptions of London, he nevertheless manages to create a very distinct picture of the city at that time: the misery, the fear, the stark reality of a plague-ridden city. There is simply so much to love in Mark of the Plague! Readers will be left eagerly anticipating further adventures in this series.
Lisa is Co-Manager of Woozles Children's Bookstore in Halifax, NS.
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