Title: The Blackthorn Key
Author: Kevin Sands
Synopsis: “Tell no one what I’ve given you.”
Until he got that cryptic warning, Christopher Rowe was happy, learning how to solve complex codes and puzzles and creating powerful medicines, potions, and weapons as an apprentice to Master Benedict Blackthorn—with maybe an explosion or two along the way.
But when a mysterious cult begins to prey on London’s apothecaries, the trail of murders grows closer and closer to Blackthorn’s shop. With time running out, Christopher must use every skill he’s learned to discover the key to a terrible secret with the power to tear the world apart.
Huge thank you to Simon & Schuster Canada for this ARC!
If I’m being honest, I didn’t really know what I was getting into when I started The Blackthorn Key. I hadn’t heard any buzz, so I went into this book without expectation, though I had heard mild rumblings that this was going to be on par with Percy Jackson in terms of popular middle grade fiction.
Screw Percy Jackson, this book is better! Call me a heathen, butThe Blackthorn Key easily swept my interest in a way Percy Jackson failed to do so. This book has such a rich setting, very dark, mysterious, and the story is centred around cults who attack apothecaries, and our protagonist, Christopher’s master, happens to be one of the prey. This means this book is full of puzzles — and I love me some clever puzzles. Sands was even kind enough to give decoders in the novel so the reader can unravel the meaning of the puzzles themselves, which is so rad! (And yes, I used it many, many times…)
I really enjoyed the story in this book. It’s fast paced, crazy, and it keeps the reader on the toes. The puzzle elements are a unique addition and it’s a great way for the reader to exercise their brain power along side Christopher as he unravels what happened to his master. Furthermore, every chapter has a cliffhanger, and for me personally, I definitely got into the habit of “Just one more chapter!” because Sands knows how to keep his readers engaged.
Plus I thought the characters were really well done. I adored Christopher’s tenacity and love that he wasn’t the stereotypical troublemaker that middle grade loves to throw at readers. He’s insanely passionate about his apprenticeship and has such a strong belief in working hard. He also wears his flaws on his sleeve, which I thought was a nice touch. I also loved his relationship with Tom, who I felt was a good foil for Christopher at times. He’s a little quirky, but has so much heart. Even the villains and the cult are well portrayed — there’s an eerie tone throughout the novel, and the novel does this great job of never making the reader or the characters feel safe.
I also appreciated how the novel was wrapped up. I liked that there wasn’t a pretty bow and that Christopher doesn’t get out of the situation and the mystery scott free, but rather he’s forced to accept a situation that he couldn’t control. He’s left with a lot of depth embedded in him. Something which I appreciated.
The Blackthorn Key was a great ride, and easily one of the more intriguing middle grade novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading this year. While I adored the puzzle elements in this novel, I wonder if it’s something every reader is going to feel engaged with. I don’t know how hip or with it decoders are (though I enjoyed it!). I think this story does so much right in terms of drawing the reader in with its characters, setting and over all atmosphere, and I do hope this book gets well-loved, because honesty, I really do think it’s better than some of the most of the popular middle grade series out there.