The Blackthorn Key by Kevin Sands
Published by Puffin
Genres: Middle Grade, Fantasy, Historical Fiction, YA, Adventure
For Fans of: The Bartimaeus Trilogy, Lockwood & Co, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (yes. This one specifically)
My Rating: 4 stars out of 5
London, 1665. Fourteen-year-old Christopher Rowe is apprenticed to master apothecary Benedict Blackthorn. In Blackthorn’s shop, Christopher learns the delicate secrets of transforming simple ingredients into powerful medicines, potions and weapons. His beloved master guides him with a firm, steady hand—instilling in him the confidence and independence that prove increasingly vital as Christopher learns of a mysterious cult preying on the most learned men in London. The murders are growing closer and closer to home and soon Christopher is torn from the shop with only a page of cryptic clues from his master and the unambiguous warning—‘Tell no one.’
Helped by his best friend, Tom, Christopher must decipher his master’s clues, following a trail of deceit towards an unearthly secret with the power to tear the world apart.
Well, I am pleasantly surprised.
As is the case with most of the middle grade novels I go into, I didn’t expect more than a quick enjoyable read when I picked up The Blackthorn Key. A story about a boy who finds himself smack in the middle of a mystery, and needs to unravel its secrets before time ran out? Murder cults! Apothecaries! 17th century London?! It sounded like a swell time.
The Blackthorn Key, I was delighted to discover, wasn’t your regular ol’ children’s book. It’s written in the vein of a Stroud novel, or a Patrick Ness one (minus, like, 40% of the feels and gross sobbing). It’s complex, wonderfully written, and doesn’t dumb anything down for its audience. It’s definitely the kind of book adults could enjoy, too, because the mystery is woven so well that unless you’re paying close attention, you don’t figure out the pieces of the puzzle until Christopher does.
Any time I reached a conclusion before this kid, it was because I was going with my gut.
The cast of characters wasn’t as vast or as diverse as I’d have liked it to have been? Middle grade books have been stepping it the heck up, you guys, don’t look at me like that. They’ve raised the bar. Don’t look at me funny for having high expectations for a cast from a children’s book set in the 1600s. POC existed. Girls existed. Where they be? The cast consisted almost entirely of two boys in their mid-teens, and buncha older men who, if I’m being completely honest, sorta lacked personality. Eh. Hangups.
Despite my nitpicking, I have to admit that Christopher and Tom were great characters. They were lovable and dynamic and you just couldn’t help but root for them. Christopher was a trouble-maker and a schemer and I loved him dearly. It pained me to see him go through everything he did. And Tom. Good, loyal Tom. Heart emoji.
And their friendship! God! Two boys! Who loved each other! And weren’t afraid to show fondness! Who were there for each other! WHO PUT THEIR LIVES AT RISK FOR EACH OTHER! God. My heart weeps for joy. Friendships are so incredibly important, especially in fiction, and it was lovely to see these two just be so unashamed of their friendship. It was so wholesome. So good. I want more of it.
I could go on for a while about how much I enjoyed this book. The mystery was great. I could give it five stars on entertainment factor alone. I really enjoyed it, and cannot wait to see what the next book has in store for Christopher. I will, however, say that a part of me really wishes that [SPOILER: Benedict wasn’t killed off in this book. It would have been so great to have an entire first book that just focused on his relationship with Christopher, and let us grow to love him as Christopher’s father figure. AND THEN have him killed off in the second book.] It would have been a great way to rip out the hearts of readers everywhere. But I have no idea where this story’s gonna go, so what the heck do I know, right?
Anyway. If you like middle grade novels that are appropriately feel-y, and are filled with old-timey science and adventure, then definitely check this one out.