Written by Kevin Sands, The Blackthorn Key is a thrilling mystery for older kids, set in London in the 1600s. Christopher Rowe is the main character, a 14 year-old orphan who has been apprenticed to an apothecary. His master, Benedict Blackthorn, treats Christopher with uncommon kindness and respect while teaching him the skills to become an apothecary in his own right. Ultimately, Christopher and his friend, Tom, find themselves in a desperate battle against the Cult of the Archangel, which has been systematically murdering apothecaries in London. The mystery is enhanced by the use of clever ciphers, secret dungeons, and unusual medicinal remedies. And which of the realistic characters can the boys trust? Will Christopher decode the clues within clues in time to save himself and others?
I used this book as a read aloud and would not suggest it for kids below middle school due to the graphic violence, which I filtered out. Axes and swords make for messy battles, along with a brief torture scene using acid. Kids will love Christopher’s penchant for blowing things up; the tender relationship between him and his master/father figure is a bit of a tear-jerker. Kevin Sands accurately portrays the era, with its dreadful sanitation, political intrigues, and abuses of power. We are transported to a time when people used poop on sores and drank poppy tea as a pain reliever. There are a few anachronistic references, primarily verbal expressions, but this book could easily spark a study of British history, ciphers, and medicine. And explosives!
The Blackthorn Key is a 5-star read, even for adults. I’ve already started the sequel, Mark of the Plague, which is another winner!