________________ CM . . . . Volume XXIV Number 9 . . . . November 3, 2017


The Assassin's Curse. (A Blackthorn Key Adventure).

Kevin Sands.
New York, NY: Aladdin Books (Distributed in Canada by Simon & Schuster Canada), 2017.
537 pp., hardcover, $23.99.
ISBN 978-1-5344-0523-3 (hc.), ISBN 978-1-4814-4676-1 (ebook).

Grades 5-8 / Ages 10-13.

Review by Lisa Doucet.

**** /4

Reviewed from Advance Reading Copy.



Tom and I stared at him, jaws hanging open.

"Us?" I said.

Even Lord Ashcombe seemed startled by the idea. "That's…an unusual suggestion, sire."

"Is it?" the king said. "Think. This one" - he pointed at me - "has now stopped not one, but
two plots against my family-plus that business with the plague. He treats poisons, finds criminals-he even deciphers codes. Who better to go than him? And we'd all be dead without his giant friend, rolling pin or otherwise."

To my horror, I saw Lord Ashcombe looking at us speculatively. Surely he wasn't taking this seriously! "They're a little young," he said finally.

"How old was I at the Battle of Edgehill?" Charles said. "And how old was I when my father made me commander of the West Country?"

"Twelve," the King's Warden said thoughtfully. "And fourteen."

"And did I not do my duty?"

Lord Ashcombe's growl softened. "You were very brave."

This was absurd. Lord Ashcombe was supposed to be sensible. Now he was

"My lord-Your Majesty-I think there's been some kind of mistake," I said. Tom agreed vigorously. "I'm an apothecary's apprentice. Tom's a baker's son. We're not spies. We wouldn't even know where to begin."

"Was His Majesty wrong?" Lord Ashcombe said. "Have you not stopped two-no,
three plots so far?"

"I…we…yes, but that was all—"

"Did you not decipher that code?"

"Well…yes, but that's just because my master taught me how—"

"And did you spot the poison and treat it?"

"Again, my master—"

"Appears to have prepared you quite well for being a spy."

I had a brief but disconcerting image of Master Benedict laughing uproariously. Tom stared at me in horror. Do
something, his eyes said.

Except I didn't know what else to say. A spy? For the Crown? In
France? It was madness. But how do you tell your king he's lost his mind?

"This is all your fault," proclaims Christopher Rowe's long-suffering best friend Tom as the two boys find themselves en route to Oxford where it turns out that they have been summoned to meet the king. King Charles has learned of Christopher's exploits, first with the Cult of the Archangel and more recently exposing a scam involving a supposed cure for the plague, and he praises both Christopher and Tom for their bravery and cunning. However, Tom soon has many more occasions to utter or at least think those words as events unfold. When Christopher stumbles upon an attempt to poison the king, he narrowly manages to prevent it from happening (in a most dramatic fashion!). The would-be assassin escapes but a coded message is recovered and reveals that the king's sister was actually the intended target. To Tom's utter dismay, both boys, as well as their friend Sally, are suddenly being sent to Paris to protect Minette and get to the bottom of this plot on her life.

      Once in Paris, Christopher is confronted with the enormity of this task as two more assassination attempts are made, and he realizes that, aside from Tom and Sally, there is no one that he can safely trust. The mystery takes a new turn when he deduces that an ancient curse and a hidden treasure from the early days of the Knights Templar are at the heart of these attacks on Minette (and the entire French monarchy), and that finding this treasure is the key to securing their safety. Armed with a cryptic poem that provides clues to the location of the treasure, Christopher is in his element doing what he does best: solving puzzles! Calling to mind all the things his beloved Master Blackthorn has taught him, Christopher throws himself headlong into this task, and soon he and Tom and Sally are wending their way through (and sometimes under) the streets of Paris in a heart-stopping race to find the treasure and stop a killer.

      This latest installment in the "Blackthorn Key" series of mysteries displays all of the strengths of the earlier volumes while also laying the groundwork for ongoing adventures, and it is arguably the most sophisticated book in the series to date. The setting has shifted from London to Paris, and Sands once again adroitly captures a strong sense of time and place in his narrative, weaving the politics of the past and present into the story. As the mystery unfolds, readers are introduced to the enigmatic Knights Templar and the brutal history surrounding them and the supposed disbanding of their order. The fact that Christopher learns about the Knights Templar and their connection to current events from a man named Marin who was once a dear friend of Master Blackthorn's is a skillful way of also helping Christopher to learn more about his late master and keeping his character intrinsic to the story. Christopher still looks to his former master and mentor for guidance, reminding readers of the strong bond they had had. As in the previous books, Christopher displays a stout heart, fierce loyalty and tremendous resourcefulness in the face of a very challenging assignment, ensuring that readers will continue to root for him.

      The relationships in The Assassin's Curse add to its overall appeal. In fact, Christopher's relationships with both Tom and Sally become more nuanced here. Tom becomes frustrated at what he perceives to be Christopher's blatant disregard for anyone else's thoughts and feelings as he plunges them all into grievous danger, challenging Christopher to perhaps consider whether he simply takes his friends for granted and forcing him to think more carefully and sensitively about Tom's perspective. Similarly, with Sally, readers recognize that Christopher's feelings for her are beginning to deepen, and although nothing changes outwardly in their relationship in this book, there are definite hints that this aspect of the story will continue to evolve in future volumes. But true to form, the banter between Christopher and his two cronies and the depth of their friendship add humour, levity and just the right amount of poignance to balance the tension created by the briskly-paced plot. Sands continues to demonstrate a notable penchant for plot development and high-stakes drama that incorporates just enough history to raise interest without overwhelming the story or becoming didactic. A certain degree of suspension of disbelief is, however, required on more than one occasion. For example, Christopher is masquerading as a nobleman and Tom as his servant, and yet they are seemingly able to disappear for lengthy periods of time as they pursue this mystery and no one questions their whereabouts. And the fact that Christopher just happens to meet Master Blackthorn's old friend Marin and he just happens to have the answer to the riddle they are trying to solve and he also has the poem that contains the clues that Christopher needs to locate the treasure, these are all noteworthy coincidences. Nevertheless, the story is such an entertaining romp that these are easily overlooked. Readers of all ages will enjoy this tale and the series as a whole. While the ending of The Assassin's Curse is more than a little unsettling for our protagonist, it leaves readers gratefully assured of more books to come.

Highly Recommended.

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

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